How the lionfish is threatening Florida’s marine life,
and what we can do to fight back
BY JAN NORRIS
With 18 poisonous spines along its back, the orange- and black-striped lionfish originally found in Indonesia is formidable in its appearance. Though a beauty in aquariums, it has become a major threat to all other fish populations in the wild.
The rapid spread of the invasive fish that was first noted as a problem along Florida’s coasts in 2009 has Florida officials worried.
“There are no estimates of the live fish population, but we know it’s very, very large,” says Lad Akins, director of special projects at the REEF.org in Key Largo. Th e marine conservation and research group has international outposts and studies invasive species, including the rapid spread of lionfish along every coast, with a spotlight on the United States.
Invading and repopulating along Florida reefs and estuaries that are fish nurseries, they’re devouring the eggs and hatchlings of everything that swims. “They eat anything small enough to fit in their mouths—invertebrates like octopus and commercially important fish like grouper and snapper,” Akins says.
FACING THE PROBLEM
Although the state has been slow to react to the growing threat, it has finally banned importation of the exotic fish, including any new varieties of the scorpion fish family, for the aquaculture trade.
On June 18, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approved the ban, while also loosening restrictions to make it easier for people to catch lionfish in the wild. Aquarium shops will be allowed to obtain new lionfish from divers that have acquired a license to sell them. Details of the new rules, which go into eff ect Aug. 1, can be seen at myfwc.com.
Florida lawmakers also are working on bills that would implement the ban.
“By targeting the importation of lionfish to our state, we can limit the number of new lionfish that find their way into Florida waters and, at the same time, encourage further harvest to reduce the existing invasive population,” State Rep. Holly Raschein, sponsor of the House bill, said in a release.
Intrepid technologists have joined the effort to raise awareness of the danger invasive species like lionfish pose for Florida’s waters. Launched in the late spring, the “Report Florida Lionfish” smart phone app is designed to help the state collect data about and raise awareness of the dangers lionfish pose to Florida’s marine ecosystem. The app helps the public to report lionfish sightings so the fish can be tracked and ultimately removed from Florida’s waterways. No smartphone? No worries. Just visit myfwc.com/fishing to report lionfish.
One way that Akins and others are trying to encourage more lionfish harvesting is by promoting them as good to eat.
“There’s been an ongoing strategy to promote lionfish as an edible seafood,” Akins says. “NOAA has a big ‘eat lionfish’ campaign. It’s a great way to target them.” Though he concedes that it won’t be enough control soon enough, “at least it’s a start.” Divers can be effective locally, keeping the numbers down around important fish hatchery sites by spearing them whenever they spot them. An annual Lionfish Derby at the Sailfish Marina in Palm Beach Shores educates divers and nets hundreds of the fish in a contest; but there are thousands more out there, Akins knows.
TRICKY TO CATCH
Fishermen must be schooled in handling the fish.
Scott Hardin, exotic species coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, says the venomous spines of the fish, which can deliver a severe and painful sting, can give divers, fishermen and cooks pause.
“In most cases,” he says, “it’s not fatally venomous. But you don’t want to get stung by them—or spined, as it were.”
But commercial divers could profit—not only in selling the smaller catches to aquaculture companies, but also by selling the larger fish to local seafood stores and restaurants. The fish is popular with diners who have eaten the mild-flavored meat, according to Eric Finn, a spear-fisherman who sells them through his seafood company, Finn-Atic Fish Co. in Delray Beach.
“We’ve created a demand for the meat. It’s one of our best-selling fish,” Finn says. “A lot of people are leery at first; but once they try it, they’re hooked. When we have them at the green market, we’re always sold out.”
He sells to local restaurants like Max’s Harvest in Delray Beach and Mike Moir’s Food Shack and Leftovers Cafe in Jupiter. Chefs get creative with it. At 3rd and 3rd in Delray Beach, owner/chef John Paul Kline uses the fish in a ceviche at the tapas-style restaurant.
Chef Nick Morfogen at 32 East in Delray also buys lionfish whenever it’s available. He says the fish is great-tasting and his diners love it; he prepares it as a fillet dredged in curry powder and served with jasmine rice and Asian greens with a pineapple sambal. He doesn’t like to fillet the fish, however: “It’s a major pain—and dangerous—to break down,” he says.
TASTY TO EAT
Jessica Zabel, spokeswoman for Cod and Capers Seafood Market and Café in North Palm Beach, says her market carries lionfish whenever they can get it. They sell the fish for $7.99 per pound.
“We would serve it in the café as a market plate if we had it in stock in the retail case,” she says. However, because some divers simply aren’t equipped to handle the fish, “we have trouble getting divers to bring it to us.”
Many customers do buy the lionfish, she says: “Some who just want to taste it, and others who are repeat customers who really like it.”
Th e texture is akin to hogfish, and the flavor is light and delicate—a characteristic that makes fish saleable to many. “It would be great for someone who doesn’t think they like fish much,” Zabel notes.
While a few customers question the safety of eating it, Zabel assures them that there are no worries. “It’s perfectly safe to eat as far as the poisonous spines go. Th e poisons die soon after the fish does.” Spines and meat are separated when cleaning it, and cooking renders the toxins harmless.
Their seafood market staff will fillet for free any whole fish a customer buys, she says, eliminating the cook’s worries. And, for do-it-yourselfers, Akins points to a video on the Reef.org website that gives instructions on easily cleaning them. “The skin peels off , much like off a mahi.”
Recipes for lionfish are available on the website, along with information about restaurants serving it. Also, The Lionfish Cookbook, by Tricia Ferguson and Akins, is available for purchase at Reef.org.
Fresh caught lionfish at Cod & Capers Seafood
Market (codandcapers.com) Photo by Jan Norris
- Species: pterois
- Diet: carnivore
- Life span: 5 to 15 years
- Size: 11.8 to 15 inches
- Weight: up to 2.6 lbs.
Lionfish are also called turkey fish, dragonfish and scorpion fish.
The lionfish sting is purely defensive. It relies on camouflage and lightning-fast reflexes to capture prey, mainly fish and shrimp.
A lionfish will often spread its feathery pectoral fins and herd small fish into a confined space where it can more easily swallow them.
CATCH & EAT FOR THE ECOSYSTEM
Join local divers at the 3rd Annual Lionfi sh Derby & Rodeo to help sustainably round up and cook local lionfish.
The fishing is fun, and the lionfish make a delicious meal!
Want more lionfish recipes? Be sure to order The Lionfish Cookbook from reef.org/catalog/cookbook.