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September 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 35, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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We Can’t Stop The Lionfish Invasion

but having them for dinner might slow it down

from the September, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

This frilly finned marauder is making its way along the East Coast downward into the Caribbean, multiplying feverishly and eating everything in sight. It’s aggressive, poisonous, and has no natural predators. It’s been sighted as far north as Massachusetts and as far south as Belize. Scientists and government agencies are trying to figure out how to stop it, but no one has found a way. The best solution we have has been offered up by a dive shop owner and a seafood middleman: turn the lionfish into the next culinary trend.

Debby Boyce of Discovery Diving in Beaufort, NC, has been conducting monthly “Lionfish Roundups,” taking paying divers out to collect the fish. Michael Dimin is the Florida-based owner of Sea to Table, a group that gets fishermen’s eco-sustainable catches to high-end restaurants, and he ships the lionfish to chefs eager for new dishes to serve. “The best way to keep the population at bay is to create a fishery,” Dimin says. “This would be a great source of income for fishermen, who would have a reason to harvest the fish, rather than just collect and kill them just to get them out of the water.”

If this succeeds, it would be a new twist on sustainable fishing. While environmentalists are trying to stop fishermen and sushi restaurants from driving dwindling stocks of fish like the bluefin tuna to extinction, they’re happy to get as many lionfish as possible onto people’s plates. Otherwise, the rapidly spreading lionfish could be as lethal as overfishing and climate change to Caribbean reefs and marine life.

Why the Lionfish Is Fish Non Grata

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the lionfish was first introduced to the Atlantic/Caribbean region in 1992, when Hurricane Andrew shattered a private aquarium, spilling six of them into Miami’s Biscayne Bay. Floating sacs of eggs rode the currents north and south, spreading the fish from Massachussetts to Belize.

Like other invasive species, lionfish lack predators in their new environment, meaning they grow bigger than before – researchers have measured Caribbean lionfish of up to 18.5 inches, compared to a maximum of 14.5 in their natural environments of the eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans. They breed more often. Every time it spawns, a lionfish can produce 20,000 to 30,000 eggs, which have a relatively high survival rate. Since the first Atlantic sighting in 2000, the lionfish population is now in the millions. Lad Akins, director of special projects for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), collected 20 lionfish during a one-week study in the Bahamas in February 2007. Nine months later at the same site, he collected 216.

The adaptable predator corners fish and crustaceans up to half its size with its billowy fins and sucks them down in one gulp. “The lionfish preys on fish more than half its body weight,” Akins told the Associated Press. Research teams observed one lionfish eating 20 small fish in under 30 minutes. What’s worse, they’re eating reef-grazing fish that keep algae at bay. Endemic fish species haven’t evolved to recognize the newcomer as a predator, so they are sitting ducks. Researchers have been searching for a predator that will eat lionfish, but groupers, black sea bass and sharks have all made U-turns when it’s handed to them. That leaves the job up to humans.

Lionfish Roundups

For Boyce, the idea for Lionfish Roundups started after she saw the devastation at Rock Pile, a popular North Carolina dive site. Multiple schools of purple reef fish, butterflyfish, surgeonfish and wrasse were wiped out by the lionfish, which now populate the site. The first roundup took place on June 1 and 2, with 16 divers doing a training session the night before the boat trip to learn how to spear the lionfish or catch it with a net, then clean and cook it. “Three old pro NOAA divers with us killed the lionfish on the first dive with pole spears, so most participants threw away their nets and speared them on the next dives,” Boyce wrote in her trip report. During two days at Rock Pile, they collected 131 lionfish but did not come close to getting them all. The consensus was, “They tasted sort of like triggerfish or black sea bass, and yes, some said they tasted like chicken,” said Boyce.

Dimin shipped a box to North Pond restaurant in Chicago and another was sent to New York restaurants Cookshop and Esca. “All three chefs found the story very appealing from a conservation standpoint,” he said. “Chef Bruce Watson in Chicago said the fish sold very well after having his servers describe to diners where the lionfish came from, how it was harvested and why.” They were also impressed with the delicate flesh and its sweet, clean flavor, somewhere between a grouper and a snapper. The chefs served the fish as fillets and in its entirety, as its plumage looks impressive on the plate. Based on the chefs’ feedback, Dimin says he can sell all the lionfish Boyce can get.

Getting the word out about lionfish as dinner entrée is also happening in the Bahamas. While locals initially weren’t keen on eating fish with poisonous spikes, the Department of Fisheries has been holding cooking presentations to show fishermen and food vendors how to handle, clean and cook lionfish (its poison becomes inert within an hour of death). Cafes in Nassau now have lionfish on their menu (see sidebar at right).

They’re Not an Easy Catch

There’s still one problem: Lionfish don’t fall for the hookand- line approach and they’re hard to get into fish traps. “The only way to catch them is to literally dive with nets and spears, which is labor intensive and not the most effective way,” says Boyce. While they swim close to shore in some places, lionfish also inhabit distant, deep-water reefs in an endless number of areas that divers don’t visit. For example, they have been spotted in Little Cayman’s marine park but most of the waters around the island are never dived by tourists. In North Carolina, lionfish are prolific 20 miles offshore.

As for the Lionfish Roundups, Boyce says they’re not profitable. “We have tons of people willing to go out and shoot fish but not as much luck getting people to pay to do it.” The last roundup of the year is September 26-27. The $350 fee includes an evening training seminar, two days of two-tank dives to wreck sites and ledges, hunting gear and a cookout at the end. Go to for details.

As a diver, it makes plenty of sense to support lionfish hunting. But the truth is we are not going to put a dent in the population. For example, the lionfish was first spotted in Belizean waters last December. Recognizing the threat to fisheries, the government paid a $50 bounty for each lionfish people turned in. Eight months later, the government canceled the bounty because lionfish are now too widespread in Belizean waters. They are an enormous threat to Caribbean and Atlantic reef fish, and with no solution in site, both their numbers and range will continue to expand.

- - Vanessa Richardson

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