For those not familiar with the lionfish situation here in Florida, here’s a quick rundown. The Indo-Pacific fish species, introduced into Atlantic waters by aquarium owners in the 1980s, have become a nuisance. Throughout the past three decades, the fish, voracious eaters and breeders with a lone female producing up to one million eggs per breeding season, have gone from invasive species to established in the waters ranging from as far north as Rhode Island to as far south as Brazil, and every spot in-between, hitting hard the sub tropic and tropic waters of Florida, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico. Indiscriminate in in what they target as prey, lionfish feed on juvenile fish species that are economically viable, such as snapper and grouper, environmentally important, like wrasses (the medical doctors of the fish world) and parrot fish (important in keeping algae growth on coral reefs in check), as well as invertebrates, from lobster, stone crab, and shrimp to name just a few. With no natural predators in Gulf and Atlantic waters, the only thing that feeds on these fish is, well, us. Which is why organizations like the Naples Spearfishing League, whose inaugural Lionfish Derby, set for August 7-8, is such an important tool in the fight against this beautiful, yet destructive fish.
Lionfish invasion graphic from REEF and NOAA, depicting the spread of the fish beginning in confirmed sighting in 1985.
Modeled after traditional rod-and-reel fishing tournaments, lionfish derbies set teams of divers out onto the water in search of the fish, netting and spearing as many as they possibly can. NSFL’s Lionfish Derby will take to the Gulf’s waters on Saturday, August 8, starting at 7:30 a.m. with a shotgun start at Gordon’s Pass—there is a mandatory captain’s meeting at Tavern on the Bay on Friday, August 7 at 6:30 p.m. After a day on the water, dive teams will return to land, docking at the Tavern for weigh-in and awards. The public is welcome to join the weigh-in party—plenty of rum-heavy boaters drinks will be shared—to check out the day’s work of fishing, and learn about how these fish are wreaking havoc on the ecosystem. Interested in joining the fun? Entry fee costs $400 per team; click here for more information on how to signup. Proceeds from the event will benefit St. Mathew’s House.
So why host a tournament for just one type of fish? For non-scuba divers, the problem is essentially out of sight, out of mind. But as soon as you put on a mask and take to the reefs, the problem becomes all too apparent: These things are everywhere. From depths as deep at 300 feet to just a few inches of water, on coral and sponge reefs to rocky outcrops, even along seawalls and mangrove fringe, lionfish are there; in some parts of the Atlantic and Caribbean, they are the only fish around. The situation is bad, and getting worse. Which is why these tournaments are so important, not just in the extraction efforts, but on the scientific front too. The wholesale removal of fish gives scientists a rare opportunity to recover large datasets in just one sitting, with divers reporting where the lionfish were caught (depth, structure, GPS points, etc.), as well as size and biological data. Fish not destined for the plate land in laboratories, giving researchers a chance to examine what’s in the lionfish stomach, whether there is any bacteria or virus effecting them, even studying the venom along their spines for potential medical use. Lionfish not kept by individual teams from the tournament will be used for research, donated to facilities like Florida Gulf Coast University for their ongoing work studying the lionfish invasion.
Come join the lionfish party and help lead the charge of marine conservation, spear in hand.
Interested in trying some lionfish at home? Lad Akins and REEF published The Lionfish Cookbook: The Caribbean’s New Delicacy with the help of Chef Tricia Ferguson, giving divers and stewards of the sea ideas on how to prepare the fish.
“Lionfish is a highly regarded food fish, a delicacy, and is really the only weakness it has. So we are trying to exploit that fact,” Akins says. “And the fish is good for you, too. Some of the nutritional analysis being done has shown that lionfish have higher Omega 3s than a lot of the commonly eaten species like snapper, grouper and tuna.”
Below are links to some of the recipes from The Lionfish Cookbook. Enjoy!
A seafood snack with a Cajun kick that is good for our sea, Spicy Lionfish, from The Lionfish Cookbook: The Caribbean’s New Delicacy.
Share the tasty conservation efforts with these bite-sized lionfish nachos from The Lionfish Cookbook: The Caribbean’s New Delicacy.