John Mirabella: Steward of Keys Lionfish Removal
John Mirabella, owner of the off-the-beaten-path Castaways Waterfront Restaurant & Sushi Bar in Marathon, could well be called the "Lionfish King" of the Florida Keys.
Mirabella is recognized througout the universe of lionfish for spearfishing efforts to remove the voracious and wildly invasive non-native species from Keys waters.
The affable natural storyteller is known as a pioneering lionfish hunter and for the ways he cooks it up — “wreckdiver style” (cooked in white wine with lemon, capers, tomatoes, garlic and fresh herbs), served as sushi or in a Benedict dish.
“People want lionfish,” Mirabella said. “They’re coming to search for it. Some people actually plan their vacations around what they’re going to eat.”
Castaway’s extensive menu typically includes nine species of fish, all fresh off the boat. Mirabella purchased Marathon’s oldest restaurant Feb. 16, 2000, when it was a 40-seat screened-in porch.
Today the 150-seat eatery has three seating venues: Tiki-covered, waterside outdoor dining and air-conditioned waterfront dining areas.
Mirabella, who hunts lionfish regularly, has also represented the state of Florida at an international sustainable seafood conference.
In his spare time, the former nuclear operator enjoys traveling throughout the Bahamas and with son Ian to theme parks in central Florida. Mirabella also enjoys time with dog Saylor and friend and dive buddy Adolphus Busch IV, a part-time Marathon resident.
Mirabella works closely with Lionfish Central — a nonprofit committed to evaluation, education and eradication of the invasive Indo-Pacific species from Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea reefs — to source lionfish when he’s not in the water catching them. He conducts 150 to 500 dives each year.
In addition, he’s now a comic book character, showcased as a “lionfish reef hero” in Lionfish Central’s lionfish comic project. Mirabella sells the comic book in the gift shop at Castaway, and a soon-to-be-created lionfish consumption passport is in the works.
Keys Traveler: When did you first come to the Florida Keys and why?
John Mirabella: Nearly 25 years ago. I longed for a life in the islands and away from the city. I wanted to be my own boss. In 1999, I finished a sailing voyage from the Pacific and arrived in the beautiful Florida Keys.
KT: What aspects of the Keys environment or way of life matter most to you?
JM: The idyllic weather and enjoying all the benefits of living on the water. I quickly fell in love with the people. The small-town sense of community is a great place to raise my son.
KT: Who or what inspired you to become passionate about respecting and protecting the Keys’ natural world?
JM: My parents, for exposing me to the vastness and diversity of the ocean at a very early age. I was raised on the Florida east coast. The ocean has always played a very significant role in my life.
KT: How does that passion influence your work or profession?
JM: My passion is directly related to my profession. Since I own a sushi-seafood restaurant, the justification to go diving and spearfishing is there on a daily basis. I take great pride in serving a dish that was swimming in the ocean earlier that day.
KT: What are some of the ways, personally or through your work, that you connect with and/or help protect the local environment and unique lifestyle?
JM: I am most comfortable in two places — underwater and in the dining room of the Castaway. When chatting with our guests, the conversation almost always gravitates to seafood and drifts to conservation efforts and sustainability. Informing people is part of the process.
KT: What keeps you energized, challenged and focused on your path?
JM: Now that we are established and the restaurant has the personnel and infrastructure in place to perform, I can concentrate on the finer details and how to support our fragile ecosystem. My single greatest motivation is my 6-year-old son Ian. Everything I do is with him in mind. Conservation efforts supported by the Castaway are done with the next generation in mind.
KT: What do you hope your positive environmental actions will accomplish?
JM: For the next generation to be conscious stewards of our precious ecosystem because once something is lost, it is impossible to bring it back. We need to act NOW to affect positive change.
KT: What message do you want your actions and example to communicate to people you encounter?
JM: The simplest action (or inaction) can have a very significant impact on the environment.
KT: What’s your favorite natural or eco-friendly activity in the Keys?
JM: Swimming along the bottom of the ocean converting deleterious non-native lionfish into tasty meals.
Marathon’s Castaway Waterfront Restaurant & Sushi Bar is deservedly famous for its innovative sushi, such as the lionfish roll displayed here. Photo: Jason Koler | Keys Weekly.