Our Reef's Most Delicious Predator!
Author: Lee Klein
Lionfish are ethereally hued showgirls of the ocean, floating chorus lines of ostentatious stripes and flamboyantly feathery fins—yet from each sparkling body springs venomous dorsal, ventral and anal spines capable of piercing stings to humans and other fish.
The devastation they are wreaking on the reef ecosystems along the Southeast Coast and in the Caribbean is playing out like an old black-and-white, Hollywood-scripted creature feature: disease-resistant alien invaders that multiply rapidly, can survive tough conditions, have no natural predator, are getting bigger, and will eat just about anything that fits into their mouth (a lionfish stomach is capable of expanding to 30 times its normal size). Think of an underwater Godzilla, or Kirstie Alley, but millions of them, each capable of laying 30,000 eggs. Every four days.
Their vivid markings make them iconic tank specimens—yet this very allure is what brought the Indo-Pacific species to our shores, which in turn has led to a decimation of indigenous fish populations. A practice of adopting non-native specimens as pets is likely to blame for the lionfish invasion of the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
“Almost certainly this is the result of aquarium pets being released into our waters, whether intentional or not,” affirms Lad Akins, special projects director for REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation, www.reef.org). The fish are easily available online: The Fuzzy Dwarf Lionfish goes for $21, a Caribbean Volitan Lionfish for just a dollar more.
Akins downgrades the oft-repeated charge that Hurricane Andrew’s damage to an aquarium tank is to blame. “Even if the story were true, lionfish were first recorded in our waters in 1985; Andrew was in 1992.”
REEF has been around since 1994. The foundation works with Federal, State and local organizations—as well as divers, fisheries, the scientific community and all manner of marine enthusiasts—to study lionfish, come up with more effective means of removal, and mitigate the negative ecological impacts.
“They devour a wide variety of native fish,” says Akins, who cites a recent study conducted in the Bahamas that documents “declines of an average of 65 percent of the prey fish community.” Included in the extensive lionfish diet are grunts, snapper, grouper and shrimp—as well as juveniles of these fish, so the detrimental effect on the commercial fishing industry should only worsen with time.
The primary tools used to snare lionfish are small spears or hand nets, and both prove time-intensive. When divers use the latter, it looks like they are chasing butterflies in slow motion—although “puncture-resistant gloves are also part of the arsenal,” adds Akins, which pretty much ruins the metaphor.
The laborious means of removing lionfish has been turned into increasingly popular derbies. These one-day events involve some hundred-plus divers (and snorkelers) who team up and compete to collect as many of the invasive species as possible. Cash prizes serve as an added incentive.
“We were involved in the very first derby, in the Bahamas in 2009,” boasts Akins. “It brought in 1,408 lionfish in a single day.” Last year, the total for all REEF-sponsored derbies in the South Florida and Bahamas was 2,694. Every captured specimen is scored and measured, and a number are dissected for study.
Plus, they cook some up. The lionfish is delectable when eaten, a piscatorial delicacy of tender white flesh and mild flavor—although its toxic reputation has diners fearing (without foundation) a potentially poisonous meal.
“It’s the best fish I’ve ever eaten, bar none.” That’s the assessment of lobster fisherman Gary Nichols, a.k.a. “The Lion (Fish) King.” “It’s a sweet, juicy meat, with a lot of fat content. If you bred a grouper and a hogfish together, that’s what a lionfish tastes like. I’ve put them on the grill, I’ve put ’em on cedar planks—oh, my God, is it good.”
Nichols, who fishes off of Conch Key, would “hardly see any lionfish four years ago.” Now they cram into his lobster traps, their numbers having “increased dramatically” each year (he claims that they have also “been doubling in size every season”).
“I’ve probably sold ten thousand pounds this year and I’m mostly dealing to only a couple of restaurants. They use them all up.”
The Fish House Encore in Key Largo (www.fishhouse.com) is one of those clients, and is often cited as first in the region to plate lionfish. Peter Tselikis, the chef here for a decade, serves it fried whole as an appetizer ($12.99), and in fillet form, “any style,” as an entrée ($26.99). “It flakes exactly like hogfish, very white, thick flesh,” he says. “But it’s lighter, it’s sweeter.”
Over at Key Largo Conch House (www.keylargocoffeehouse.com), the most popular presentation is Southwest Lionfish, blackened and topped with pico de gallo and cheddar cheese. Might sound a bit overwrought, but Stephanie Dreaver, manager of this family-run business, swears that when they put it on special, “people just go crazy for it.”
Lionfish season in Keys restaurants pretty much runs concurrently with lobster season, as the former are a bycatch of the latter. “A lot of the local fishermen have already pulled their traps out of the water,” explains Michelle Kosiek, general manager of Encore, “so we haven’t gotten a full supply like we did in the middle of the season. “
Still, they’ll have enough on hand come April 16th, when Encore hosts Lionfish Food and Wine Night (www.reef.org/node/5410), a four-course, tapas-style dinner and wine pairing with demos by Akins and chef Tselikis.
“You gotta eat ’em to beat ’em!” has become a rallying cry of fishermen, restaurateurs, chefs and of the overall lionfish-elimination movement. Developing a robust commercial market for the fish would go a long way towards curbing their growth. And if it turns out that consuming these tasty invaders really does defeat them—well, that’s the sort of happy ending not even Hollywood could cook up.