Florida is a land of contrasts. When a subtropic clime beckons, species of all types answer the call. Some are welcomed, such as snowbirds. Others are tolerated—Palm Beach’s green-cheeked parrots come to mind. Some others are despised; it is open season on Burmese pythons, feral pigs and Nile monitor lizards. The red lionfish [pterois volitans] falls in this last group.
The ornamental fish, once prized by aquarium enthusiasts for its delicate features and vibrant colors, is now public enemy number one, having a devastating impact on the sustainability of Atlantic and Caribbean reefs and waters. Aided by voracious appetites, lightning quick reproduction periods, no natural predators and a covering of venomous spines, the lionfish is one of the most formidable species in our waters.
Originally from Indo-Pacific waters, lionfish populations are kept relatively in check in their home territory, but here they run rampant. Little is known about why their numbers are held at bay, since local populations in the Indo-Pacific waters are varied and sparse, so finding a large enough sample size for a scientific study is difficult to establish. One theory is that something feeds on lionfish eggs or larvae, before they develop their spiny defense system, thus balancing the food web. The Western Hemisphere does not have the same conditions.
The local origin of the introduction of lionfish varies significantly depending on whom you speak with. A popular theory bandied about is that aquariums damaged during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 released the fish, while others blame the luxury resort Atlantis in the Bahamas and questionable maintenance practices on its massive aquariums. Both may have contributed to the problem, but one of the main culprits is home aquarium owners releasing the fish as they grew too big for their glass confines. First spotted off Florida’s shores in 1985 (seven years prior to Andrew and 13 before Atlantis), the slow accumulation eventually spurred breeding—up to 15,000 eggs each reproduction cycle, which is every month—and has caused an invasion that is no longer invasive but established.
“We cannot stem the lionfish invasion,” says Lad Akins, director of Special Projects at Key Largo-based REEF (The Reef Environmental Education Foundation), a nonprofit group dedicated to conserving marine ecosystems by educating, enlisting and enabling marine enthusiasts to become stewards of our seas. “It has already happened. From North Carolina through the Caribbean, South and Central America and north through the Gulf of Mexico is all lionfish territory now.”
The lionfish can have a calamitous effect on Florida’s reefs and fisheries. With up to 1,000 lionfish per square acre in some regions, they are quickly becoming one of the most abundant predators on the reef from the Carolinas to the Caribbean. And it is “their predation that makes them such a threat to our ecosystem,” says Akins. “They will eat anything that fits into their mouth, in excess to half of their own body mass, and they are gluttonous eaters.”
Though the lionfish is a relatively small fish, feeding mainly on juvenile fish and crustaceans, this causes major issues for fishery sustainability and reef success. In a recent study, researchers found that the inclusion of lionfish on a reef “significantly reduces the net recruitment of coral reef fishes by an estimated 80 percent” (Albins and Hixon). This is significant for a few reasons. Many of the juvenile fish on Florida’s reefs are economically viable species to the region, like grouper and snapper, which lionfish are both eating directly, as well as competing with for food. The consumption of wrasses is especially alarming because these are the medical doctors of the reef, cleaning parasites off the reef community. The loss of wrasses can prove debilitating to fish populations as common parasitic threats go unchecked. There also is a fear that lionfish are reducing the amount of herbivorous species like the parrotfish, which stem the encroachment of algae and seaweed on the reef, putting local reefs in an even more precipitous state, adding to threats like rising sea temperatures (causing coral bleaching) and increased acidification of the ocean’s waters (preventing corals from constructing the calcified structure of the reef). These interactions between impacts are becoming negatively synergistic, which can lead to quicker ecosystem collapse.
“We have documented lionfish in mangroves in different parts of the Bahamas, the Florida Keys, even three miles up the Loxahatchee from the inlet,” says Akins, who, along with REEF, is researching the threat of lionfish throughout the Caribbean. “Basically anywhere there is structure, they can be found. As long as there is food and shelter, it is lionfish territory.”
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Though the tide has brought lionfish to these waters, and for now it seems there is little to be done to eradicate them, local control seems to be the best way to minimize their numbers. REEF, along with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), the U.S. Geological Survey and a slough of additional research organizations and universities, have begun extensive programs to study the fish, educate the public on their impact on the marine ecosystems, and find ways to control their numbers.
“Local control can be an effective way of keeping their numbers down and minimizing impact,” Akins says. “We, along with our partners, are working to educate people on the problem; why it is a problem; encourage the removal of lionfish when they are encountered; training people how to remove them; and put together public events like lionfish derbies to raise public awareness.”
Not a line-and-tackle type of fish, removing lionfish mainly falls to spear and net practices by scuba and skin divers. The spines of the fish are the only place their venom is located, which can be quite irritating if it comes in contact with skin. (If stung, soak inflicted area in hot water—non-scalding, 110-110 degrees—for 15 to 20 minutes. The venom is denatured with heat, so the hot water should prevent the venom from spreading to the bloodstream. Always contact a physician.) To prepare the fish for eating, simply cut off the spines and fillet. Lionfish meat is completely safe and is rather tasty, similar to hog fish—light and delicately flavored.
“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,” says Akins, who recently 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. “And the fish is good for you too. Some of the nutritional analysis being done has shown that lionfish have higher [content of] omega-3 than a lot of the commonly eaten species, like snapper, grouper and tuna.”
The federal government has even gotten in on the act with NOAA, which has launched the Eat Lionfish campaign, which they hope can actually reverse the invasion by introducing lionfish to the public as a viable, tasty and healthy seafood alternative.
On the Florida Front
Energetic Florida resident and maritime activist Bobbie Lindsay founded the Lionfish Derby and Rodeo, which, with partners REEF and Friends of the Environment, has competitions throughout the Caribbean and the Florida Keys to raise public awareness. In the same vein as rod-and-reel fishing competitions, lionfish derbies set divers to the sea with spears and nets in hand, looking to bag as many lionfish as they can.
“We just held the third annual Green Turtle Cay Derby in Abaco and 1,318 lionfish came in in a single day,” says Lindsay. “I don’t know what it is about these events and these fish, but people just have so much fun. They get a chance to go hunting all day and are green while doing it.”
Not just for the avid hunter and diver, lionfish derbies also provide a venue to teach the public about the effects lionfish are having on our local reefs, ways they can help and, for many, experience eating the fish for the first time. “When we first started these derbies a couple of years ago, there was no public awareness,” says Lindsay, who, along with REEF, will be holding an upper Keys Lionfish Derby August 20 at Coconuts Restaurant & Bar in Key Largo. “The short-term goal was to raise awareness and get governments involved; we have done that,” says Lindsay, citing the Bahamian government’s recent involvement and sponsorship of the derby in Green Turtle Cay in Abaco this past June. “So now the long-term goal is to get them on the menu. Lionfish is just as good as any fish you have ever tasted.”
To prime the public’s palate, chefs and demonstrators show derby participants and visitors alike how to prepare lionfish, right down to venomous spine removal, filleting and cooking the fish pulled in from the derby. A free tasting to all who want to try the delicacy follows, along with a ceremony in which cash prizes and a trophy are handed out to the boat that brings in the largest haul.
The removal of lionfish is a conservation effort that is delicious and effective. But it can only work if demand calls for it. As so many fish populations teeter on the brink of collapse, developing a palate for this tasty fish should not just be a priority but a conscientious obligation to our seas.
For recipes from The Lionfish Cookbook: The Caribbean’s New Delicacy click the images below.
For anyone wanting to help reverse the tide of the lionfish invasion, REEF has setup an online database for divers to report lionfish sightings so they can be removed properly: www.reef.org/programs/exotic/report