Eating Lionfish: Effective Conservation, or a Cure Worse than the Disease?

November 10, 2014

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Lionfish have become invasive in the Caribbean. Can eating them help stop the spread? Photo: © Jeff Yonover

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 lionfish safaris. Lionfish derbies. Restaurants from Key West to St. Croix to Cancun serve lionfish ceviche, lionfish chowder, lionfish fritters.

There are even entrepreneurs selling jewelry made of lionfish.

Add to this diving courses, web sites and even a Twitter feed (@KillTheLionfish) all aimed at educating would-be lionfish hunters.

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?

A typical sign seen in many Caribbean locales.
A typical sign seen in many Caribbean locales.

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?

Lionfish Hysteria?

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.

Here I am reminded of other efforts to get people to eat invasives, from nutria to carp to squirrels.

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.”

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  1. The lionfish invasion poses a unique threat and one that requires innovative approaches to control. The good news is that there is increasing evidence that native fish populations can recover relatively quickly if lionfish numbers are reduced, so the question becomes one of how to do this effectively and on a fiscally sustainable basis. Marine protection agencies can’t do it alone, nor can legions of volunteer divers. Establishment of vertical markets, including those for lionfish as a seafood choice and for jewelry and other decorative items, creates the necessary commercial incentives for removals. Moreover, these approaches provide livelihood opportunities for the fisher communities that are directly impacted by the threat.

    It is very premature to worry about perverse incentives. Yes, the concept of a “sustainable fishery” is different in the case of an invasive species, where the interest is in eradication rather than maintaining population levels. But there is a pretty strong consensus that eradication is unlikely and the nature of the fishing methods suitable for harvesting (spearing or hand netting) means that a high-volume commercial fishery is unlikely to emerge. That being the case, I don’t see a scenario in which fishers are curtailing their level of harvesting to maintain populations. Rather, we need to look at markets that will create incentives for harvesting juveniles, before they begin to reproduce. One such market is the aquarium trade. 60,000+ juvenile lionfish are still imported to the US from countries in the IndoPacific. Policy measures to shift the supply to the invaded range would be beneficial. Unfortunately, Florida has instead imposed an outright ban on imports of juvenile lionfish, which is unfortunate and in my view short-sighted.

  2. Please don’t confuse a well-meaning but easily confused public with a misleading headline like this.

    An exploration as to whether the invasivore movement is perfect (of course it is not) is worth its own article, but to be effective it would need to look at the different target species and then examine how their contexts contribute or detract from the success of mitigation via the table. This article does not do that.

    A look at the specific challenges facing the creation of a regional lionfish fishery that would explore the tensions between the producers of lionfish and the requirements of seafood retailers would likewise be a great article. But this article does not do that either.

    This article leads off with a sensational headline that casts doubt on the entire enterprise of lionfish hunting but then eventually comes full circle and acknowledges that Lionfish suppression via human intervention is actually a very good thing. Along the way to enlightenment, the article obfuscates the issue with an irrelevant comparison to feral hogs and a completely speculative and skin deep exploration into the attenuated possibility of an incentive for sustainable management rather than eradication. And there are almost no specific calls to action or concrete suggestions for making lionfish eradication more effective.

    Lionfish are a huge problem. Casting doubt on the value of human intervention does nothing to solve this problem and could curb the enthusiasm of divers who have never speared anything in their life and are really looking forward to removing some of these spiny nasties from atlantic reefs. We are in total agreement that these divers should be educated, but they should also be highly encouraged to do contribute to the fight and they should not doubt the value of their contribution. Every fish removed from the reef, no matter how small, is an improvement.

  3. I have been reading about lionfish, as well as invasivore and other related entrepreneurial conservation initiatives, in the last year or two. Mainly I have been reading Phil Karp’s blog posts and because of those have been paying attention to the issue whenever I see references in the media on my radar. This is the first time I have heard of “lionfish hysteria”–it is useful to know another view on this topic, and I look forward to reading John Bruno’s views. Thanks for using your platform to share knowledge on this issue.

  4. The problem with lionfish, as with most problems, is a human caused one. Other species are suffering as a result, and now the lionfish are, too. Instead of demonizing these fish and looking for new ways to harmfully exploit them we should be addressing the matter in the most humane ways possible. To begin with, the root cause of the problem should be addressed with a total ban on the importation and sale of lionfish.

  5. Maybe most importantly, these lionfish derbies and the trend of turning them into a meal has helped raise awareness about their spread along the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico. Awareness and prevention of spread are the key to species that have now become well-established in some areas. While control efforts can have some positive effects, they also represent a long-term effort that is often expensive!

  6. We serve Lionfish at our restaurant in NYC!

    Fried, grilled or in tacos – we are making a difference!

    Come in and try it today!! //

  7. I’m sorry that you were unable to find an establishment in the Florida Keys that served lionfish. I am a commercial harvester of lions, and have been providing 4 different restaurants in the Middle and Lower Keys with fresh lionfish daily, for about three years now. I also know of a dozen other restaurants that are sold lionfish from lobster trappers, as bycatch. Please let me know if you return to the area, and I can point you in the right direction.