The Sting

October 20, 2022

One of the ways in which conservation groups are trying to address the influx of lionfish into the Mediterranean is to encourage people to eat them. Programmes such as Pick the Alien are holding culinary events around the Aegean and training chefs and fishermen in how to collect and prepare the apparently tasty newcomer for the plate. Apparently, they’re quite tasty if you like that sort of thing.

I’ve been vegetarian since I was a teenager, but I recognise that this is not a bad idea. I don’t want to eat animals, and I don’t really think anyone else should eat them, but I often have to think about this in my local context: I’m not sure that eating fish landed by a local fishermen at a quayside taverna is any worse, globally speaking, than eating tofu imported by my local bio shop, even if those soy beans are grown somewhere in Greece. (Frankly, though, I find these conversations boring. Industrial agriculture and fishing are bad, we can do better.) Nevertheless, I sometimes think that at some point in this research I should try and eat a lionfish.

In the US, there’s a parallel story unfolding, in the most ludicrous and hyper-accelerated way, because America. There’s a lionfish explosion along the gulf coast too, caused not by a century-long migration and an ecosystem subject to climate change (or not entirely), but by released aquarium pets and artificial reef-building. Because America, killing and eating lionfish is now a competitive sport. Should I go to Florida next March? I am tempted. Could I go and not try one? Different stories will result from this choice.

I had another bad thought this morning, while snorkelling among the seagrass beds below my village. What other bodily ways are there to interface with the lionfish?

In Parallel Minds, a really extraordinary book about the intelligence of materials, Laura Tripaldi defines ‘the interface’ in chemical terms: “the interface is not an imaginary line that divides bodies from each other, but rather a material region, a marginal area with its own mass and thickness, characterised by properties that make it radically different from the bodies whose encounter produces it.” She continues:

In this sense, the interface is the product of a two-way relationship in which two bodies in reciprocal interaction merge to form a hybrid material that is different from its component parts. Even more significant is the fact that the interface is not an exception: it is not a behaviour of matter observed only under specific, rare conditions. On the contrary, in our experience of the materials around us, we only ever deal with the interface they construct with us. We only ever touch the surface of things, but it is a three-dimensional and dynamic surface, capable of penetrating both the object before us and the inside of our own bodies. This idea of the interface as a material region in which two substances can mix together to produce a completely new hybrid body, can serve as a starting point for rethinking more generally our relationship to the matter around us. If all bodies we enter into relationships with are modified and modify us in turn, then we can no longer delude ourselves that matter is simply a passive object onto which we project our knowledge. But neither can we take refuge in the convenient idea that we can never have any knowledge of that which is not human—that the matter around us is, ultimately, completely alien and unknowable, and that it really has nothing to do with us.

(I am reminded, particularly, of Flann O’Brien’s assertion in The Third Policeman that “people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles…”)

To eat the lionfish is one way of entering into a material relationship with it, for sure. But so is being stung by it.


The lionfish produces a powerful venom in specialised glands along its spine, which can be transmitted by a relatively light touch due to the sharpness of the spines which project from its dorsal fins, pelvis, and anus. This toxin is a combination of protein, a neuromuscular toxin and a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which affects muscular control and heart rate, and can cause convulsions, paralysis, and intense pain. Here’s a pretty unreadable paper on lionfish envenomation of mice. In humans, it can seriously injure and even, if it triggers an allergic response, kill an adult. Being stung, one of the Florida divers quoted in the above article (who claims to have been stung more than thirty times), “feels like your bones and joints are pushing out—it’s a fucking misery.”

So, probably not a good idea then. But still, interfaces.

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