The lionfish is not wanted in Florida waters. It’s also incurring the wrath of Caribbean island nations and fishermen and divers around the Gulf of Mexico and the southern Atlantic.
Essentially, it’s the fish version of an uninvited guest that crashes your wedding and eats all your food – or perhaps all of your other guests.
On this side of the world, it’s also an invasive species.
The lionfish is a fierce-looking creature, with fantastic brown and white striped, barbed fins that fan out around its body. Its fins deliver venom to its prey, which consists of reef fish, lobster, shrimp, and pretty much anything else it can bite down on. Basically, the lionfish has a voracious appetite and it is not a picky eater.
So how much damage is it doing? According to the World Lionfish Hunters Association (yes, there is such a thing), lionfish can eat other fish one-third their size and their stomachs can s-t-r-e-t-c-h to 30 times their size.
“They are known to eat small schools of up to 20 reef-dwelling fish at a time,” writes Scott Harrell, executive director of the World Lionfish Hunters Association. “Furthermore, studies have proven that one lionfish can reduce the number of all species of fish that it is able to consume by up to 80 percent within just five weeks of establishing its range.”
To try to combat its rampage on our reef fish, environmental groups have declared open season (literally) on the lionfish. In April, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) held a Twitter and Instagram promotion asking people to send in their photos of lionfish kills in exchange for a “Lionfish Control Team” t-shirt. Spear fishermen and divers responded enthusiastically!
Beyond just hunting them down, some environmental organizations have suggested another tactic – turning the lionfish into fish food for humans. Many people react with concern at the idea of eating a fish with venomous barbs, but the lionfish is quite safe to eat, aside from its fins. Even the fins are not very dangerous to humans – unless you happen to have an allergy to lionfish (read more about lionfish hunting and lionfish venom here). Cooking a lionfish at 350 degrees Fahrenheit denatures the toxin, according to those World Lionfish Hunters (who I am assuming have eaten their share of the invaders).
In fact, the lionfish is said to be a tasty fish, and a marine biology student I spoke to recently on a dive trip told me lionfish “takes like snapper.” Here’s a link to restaurants serving lionfish on the menu: http://lionfish.co/eat-lionfish-here/
Even if you don’t plan on running out and buying a speargun, there are things you can do to help, says the World Lionfish Hunters Association.
- Promote the consumption of lionfish; eat it, ask for lionfish at your favorite seafood restaurant (especially when it is not on the menu) and suggest it to your friends.
- Donate to organizations that promote lionfish management and conservation.
- Spread the word… (especially to enthusiastic fishermen and divers).
Photo credits: FWC, The World Lionfish Hunters Association