My husband returns to the same reefs every year in the Bahamas, where he has been teaching a coral reef ecology class for the last 14 years. On his 2008 trip, he noticed that the reef fish were missing. The culprits were quickly identified — and during his 2009 course, he and his students were eating them.
Lionfish do not belong in the Caribbean. They are native to the South Pacific and Indian Ocean and made their way into the Caribbean through the release (the exact event is unknown) of aquarium fish. Some say they were in a tank that was destroyed in Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Others say it was a release of just 3 or 6 specimens. Whatever the case, lionfish are now spotted as far north as Rhode Island, and are popping up all over the Caribbean, from Colombia to the Virgin Islands to the Bahamas.
The Bahamas‘ marine ecosystem has already been hard hit. The people that know these reefs well are witnessing a rapid decline in reef fish thanks to these voracious predators, which have an appetite for juvenile reef fish. Their method of attack is particularly unique. Instead of an ambush attack or high-speed chase, lionfish make their presence known and confuse their prey by displaying their beautiful fins like a peacock, slowly dancing towards their prey and then rapidly sucking the prey into their mouths like a vacuum. This technique is so effective because no other predator in the Caribbean uses it — so prey are not adapted to avoid it.
Lionfish have no natural predators in Caribbean waters and are thriving on the tasty but already dwindling choice of baby reef fish. Some think that native grouper might have preyed on lionfish — but because grouper are overfished in the Caribbean (and in most parts of the world), the options beyond human predators are few.
As the distribution of lionfish in the Caribbean expands and the severity of this invasion is becoming more apparent, managers are trying to figure out what to do before the adult populations of reef fish are seriously affected. In the Bahamas, they have issued a “kill on sight” directive. The Caribbean Fisheries Management Council has even developed a Most Wanted Poster to encourage removal of these fish.
The best way to get rid of them? Put them on the menu! In Asia, lionfish are a popular menu item. That’s not yet the case in the Caribbean, so folks are working to change the culture of fear that surrounds lionfish (they have toxic spines that really hurt when they touch you) into a culture of desire for a delightful bite of this light and tasty fish. There are even websites that are collecting lionfish recipes — everything from sushi to Bahamian style fritters to smoked lionfish dip (yum!).
The hope is that people will be motivated to hunt and remove these fish, taking advantage of the existing tradition of artisanal fishing in the Caribbean and turning fishers toward this undesirable species and perhaps away from dwindling populations of grouper and snapper.
An additional approach to this problem — and one that would benefit the reef in DEHE multiple ways as well — would be to beef up protection of large predators such as grouper and sharks so that they can work to keep this ecosystem in balance and potentially keep the lionfish population in check.
My husband’s students decided to do a small research project to examine the gut contents (i.e., what is in the bellies) of lionfish they found on the Bahamian reefs, and discovered that their bellies were quite full of baby reef fish. The reward for their efforts was a yummy dinner of fried lionfish…and my husband assures me that in terms of flavor and texture, they compete with any flakey white fish you can think of or catch in the Caribbean. So…
This is probably the only time you’ll hear me advocating for people to eat fish. If you want to eat fish, I’d usually refer you to Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch — a guide that helps diners make decisions about the most sustainable and healthy options for seafood. However, when it comes to lionfish in the Caribbean, I say chow down to your heart’s content!