Save the reef. Eat a lionfish.
It’s a rallying cry heard ‘round the Caribbean.
Conservationists have embraced the call to stop this marine invasive species – via the dinner plate.
There are even entrepreneurs selling jewelry made of lionfish.
Is this a highly effective response to a conservation issue?
Or, as prominent marine ecologist John Bruno has maintained, are we promoting “lionfish hysteria,” with the control tactics doing more harm than good?
Snapshot of an Invasion
Lionfish are a Pacific species that have been sold as aquarium pets, but they don’t always make the best species to keep in an aquarium.
“When you see how aggressively a lionfish behaves on a reef, you can see why people wouldn’t want them in an aquarium,” says Kemit Amon-Lewis, coral conservation manager for the Conservancy. “They eat everything. Invasive species experts theorize that, when pet owners found this out, they set them free.”
This has wreaked havoc on many reefs, and they have spread rapidly on the Caribbean. They showed up on the reefs around St. Croix, where Lewis lives, in 2007.
“At first, some thought we could catch it early and eradicate them,” says Lewis. “It soon became clear that wasn’t going to happen.”
Instead, lionfish threatened to alter reef ecology. “They don’t have natural predators in the Caribbean. They’re voracious feeders,” Lewis says. “They eat everything smaller than them. And I mean everything, even smaller lionfish. Most damaging, though, is the fact that they’re removing important reef herbivores essential for keeping the reef healthy.”
While it became clear that lionfish were too prevalent to completely stop, it also became clear some action was needed.
And here, many conservationists realized one important fact about the lionfish: They’re tasty.
Is this an invasive problem we could solve via the dinner table?
Lionfish, It’s What’s For Dinner
Lewis sees promising signs that this approach could work. Local restaurants have had promising results serving lionfish in a number of ways, and local dive clubs and even tour operators organize trips to hunt lionfish with spears.
“They’re easy to recognize, they taste good and divers can make a big difference when they target reefs,” Lewis says.
Conservationists have been busy demonstrating how to prepare fish and how to deal with the venomous spines (deactivated when the fish is cooked) as well as working with dive operators so they report any lionfish they see.
“We want lionfish hunters to kill them all, not just focus on individuals big enough for the market,” says Lewis. “In this case, we want people to overfish them. Not only does eating lionfish help remove invasives, it also takes pressure off native reef fish.”
But other conservationists ask: Is this really a viable approach? Or does it cause more problems than it solves?
The idea of eating invasives – known by some as the invasivore movement – has become a popular idea in certain conservation circles, thanks to prominent media coverage and books like Jackson Landers’ Eating Aliens.
Other conservationists see some inherent pitfalls. They worry that creating a market for invasive species could actually cause invasives to have a constituency, which in turn would lead to sustainable management rather than prevention or eradication.
Some might even spread the invasives further. This has happened with feral hogs. Some believe hunters could help stop the spread. But the reality is, hunters have been primarily responsible for spreading hogs into new states.
In the case of lionfish, this seems less likely, as marine species are managed differently.
Some worry that encouraging the hunting of lionfish could encourage spearfishing for other, native species.
Lewis believes education is vital to the success of the control effort. People need to know where the lionfish comes from. They need to know how to deal with them. And they need to practice responsible lionfish hunting.
“There are people who were spearing them and feeding them to sharks,” says Lewis. “This was training sharks to associate with people. That’s not a good strategy. We have been very focused on educating people on how to deal with a lionfish encounter, and also training restaurants on how to serve them.”
The Quest for a Lionfish Dinner
Despite this, during my two weeks reporting on marine issues in St. Croix and the Florida Keys, I failed in my attempt to have a dinner of lionfish. While more restaurants are serving the invasive, it remains difficult to find a place with it on the menu.
They all make perfect ecological sense, and taste just fine.
But in the end, few will eat nutria. There might be a few who try it as a stunt, but it’s not going to replace beef.
Here, though, is where the lionfish might be different. It’s a fish, colorful and bizarre but no more so than many other marine species on our plate. People don’t have food prejudices against it like they do for, say, rodents or insects.
And lionfish is delicious. While I failed on this trip, I have previously had lionfish ceviche served on the Yucatan Peninsula. People were already seeking that restaurant out due to that dish.
So maybe this is a case where it really can work. Lewis, who actively campaigns for lionfish control, sees this as an invasive problem that tourists, divers, commercial fishers and chefs can make a big difference.
“I think people are making a difference at specific reef sites,” says Lewis. “No, we are not going to be able to eradicate lionfish. But we can help people pinpoint reefs where they can make a real difference, really affecting reef health and native fish populations. With a bit of education, there’s no hysteria here. It’s just a common-sense strategy that works.”