Eat Lionfish and Stop These Caribbean Reef Invaders

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Published on November 2nd, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

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.

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!

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Comments: Eat Lionfish and Stop These Caribbean Reef Invaders

  •  Comment from Surgio

    This is so interesting! I never knew that Lionfish had such an affect on the native Carribean species, or that there were so many of them present in the ocean. I certainly hope that this problem gets under control, so many introduced species get out of hand like this, it is really sad to think of how few places have truly 100 percent native species in them…

  •  Comment from joe

    i think that divers should just catch the fish and sell them i know quit a few people with salt water fish tanks and they would pay big bucks to have a beautiful fish like this lion fish in there tank!… so please take it in cosideration that you could make some money off these fishys!!!!!!

  •  Comment from Carl

    Well haveing seen these fish all over the world, im sure there is a pandemic going on, i had one of these in my marine fishtank and it grew huge easily a foot in like 6 months and also this 1 fish consumed a lot of food so i can emperthise, if they taste good and are sustainible why not eat them

  •  Comment from KyFireWife

    Mmmm…. fried lionfish.
    As a general rule, I do not like seafood. But last October, while on a live-aboard dive cruise (AquaCat) in the Bahamas, we had the privilege of trying some fresh, fried lionfish.
    I loved it!
    Personally, I like it better than lobster. Or just about any other seafood I have tried.
    Now… how to get fried lionfish on the MainLand. Hmmm….

  •  Comment from Rick

    If I ever see lionfish on a menu or in the fresh fish section of the grocery store, I’ll definitely buy it! For the sake of our ecosystems, I would consider doing this even if they weren’t particularly tasty.

  •  Comment from RANDY LOFGREN

    Traditional Fisheries in Minnesota is providing Lionfish to restaurants on the mainland. Tell you favorite seafood kithen to get with it and serve some of these tasty critters.

  •  Comment from Lala

    Can anyone send some recipes to cook the lionfish?

  •  Comment from Lionfish Hunters

    In the almost 2 and half years since this article was written, there have been many significant changes in the lionfish population explosion. Some good, but most not good.

    The good news is that the diving community is really stepping up in the islands and having a tremendous effect on keeping the lionfish numbers down. Also great is that the concerted effort required to educate everyone about this potential disaster is meeting better than expected levels of success. Just in the last year that I have been running the World Lionfish Hunters Association I have watched the comments on our Facebook page turn from one of shock and horror about people removing these fish (i.e. killing the pretty fish) to people expressing support, having an educated understanding of the issue and asking us how they can help. I also see less comments about the lionfish being poisonous to eat and more comments about where to find some fillets and recipes to cook them!

    My major concern is those areas in Central American, especially Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, that have thousands of miles of Caribbean coastline that are not realistically accessible at all by recreational sport divers. I know the huge numbers of lionfish I am seeing being removed in my last two stops of Portobelo, Panama and the keys of Belize where divers are working to eradicate the fish the best we can, but to think that the areas we are diving along this expansive coastline maybe comprises less than 2% of the total length gives me chills.

    I can only imagine their numbers and it is enough to keep me up at night knowing that the reefs and associated fisheries are probably going to suffer under the weight of the damage caused by these fish to the point of collapse. If local fishing grounds no longer produce, then entire communities of people go hungry for a lack of food and a way to support themselves financially.

    Keep eating them! Keep talking about them to everyone who will listen and get involved, even if you are not a diver. The health of our ocean affects every living being on our planet.

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