by Ron Paulick (Oct. 2015)
Lionfish, while looking very majestic and beautiful, are actually very dangerous and destructive fish. This species is not native to the Caribbean and, in fact, originates from Asian waters. This fish eats smaller fish while on the reef and has few, if any, known natural predators. Each lionfish can consume up to 30 times its own weight daily and is detrimental to all reef life due to these facts. Couple that with venomous spines on its body and a reproductive cycle that rivals few, and you have a destructive path in the making.
You might ask what can be done to curb this invasion; well, I am glad you asked. Armed with information, there are many things that can be done and none of them involves saving them. There are people around the world who are eating them, spearing them and, in some cases, serving them as a delicately breaded and seasoned dish at restaurants. There are tournaments which involve spearing teams and contests to see who can spear the most. That may seem like a difficult task but actually, in one area near Florida, a couple of divers recently harvested nearly 300 fish in one dive on a sunken boat—did I mention invasive? Some very good friends of mine in and near Akumal, Mexico, are doing all they can on a regular basis to spear, remove and eat these fish, as their contribution to keeping the area they live in free of this predator. (See updated stats.)
Click here for more information on the spread of lionfish invasions in the oceans.
Lionfish is in the Pterois species and can live from 5 to 15 years. They have complex courtship and mating behaviors. Females release two mucus-filled egg clusters frequently, which can contain as many as 15,000 eggs. Studies on lionfish reproductive habits have increased significantly in the past decade. They have conspicuous coloration, with boldly contrasting stripes and wide fans of projecting spines, advertising their ability to defend themselves. Aside from instances of larger lionfish individuals engaging in cannibalism on smaller individuals, adult lionfish have few identified natural predators, likely from the effectiveness of their venomous spines. Moray eels, bluespotted cornetfish, and large groupers, like the tiger grouper and Nassau grouper, have been observed preying on lionfish. It remains unknown, however, how commonly these predators prey on lionfish. Sharks are also believed to be capable of preying on lionfish with no ill effects from their spines.
Park officials of the Roatán Marine Park in Honduras have attempted to train sharks to feed on lionfish as of 2011, in an attempt to control the invasive populations in the Caribbean. Predators of larval and juvenile lionfish remain unknown, but may prove to be the primary limiting factor of lionfish populations in their native range. Parasites of lionfish have been observed rarely and are assumed to be infrequent. They include isopods and leeches.
The red lionfish is found off the East Coast of the United States and the Caribbean Sea, and likely was first introduced off the Florida coast by the early to mid-1990s. This introduction may have occurred in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew destroyed an aquarium in southern Florida, releasing six lionfish into Biscayne Bay. However, a lionfish was discovered off the coast of Dania Beach, south Florida, as early as 1985, prior to Hurricane Andrew. The lionfish resemble those of the Philippines, implicating the aquarium trade. The lionfish may have been purposefully discarded by unsatisfied aquarium enthusiasts.
In 2001, there were several sightings of lionfish off the coast of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Bermuda and Delaware. In August 2014, when the Gulf Stream was discharging into the mouth of the Delaware Bay, two lionfish were caught by a surf fisherman off the oceanside shore of Cape Henlopen State Park: one red one that weighed 1 lb. 4.5 oz. and one common one that weighed 1 lb. 2 oz. Three days later, a 1 lb. 3 oz.-red lionfish was caught off the shore of Broadkill Beach, which is in Delaware Bay, approximately 15 miles north of Cape Henlopen State Park. Lionfish were first detected in the Bahamas in 2004. They have been discovered as far east as Barbados, and as far south as the Los Roques Archipelago and many Venezuelan continental beaches. Lionfish were first sighted in Brazilian waters in late 2014. Genetic testing on a single captured individual revealed that it was related to the populations found in the Caribbean, suggesting larval dispersal rather than an additional release.
Lionfish as Food
In 2010, there was a campaign to encourage consumption of the fish. The "Lionfish as Food" campaign encourages human hunting of the fish as the only form of control known to date. Encouraging the consumption of lionfish not only could help to control, to a point, population density, but also provide an alternative fishing source to other overfished populations, such as grouper and snapper. It is also encouraged that people report lionfish sightings, to help track lionfish population dispersal.
When properly filleted, the naturally venomous fish is safe to eat. The lionfish is a "delicious, delicately flavored fish" similar in texture to grouper. Recipes for lionfish include deep-frying, ceviche, jerky, and grilling. Some of the best lionfish I personally have had came from Gynn'AK and Lol-Ha Restaurants in Akumal. I thank my friends for introducing me to how delicious these invasive fish are.
In closing, I would like to say that the lionfish, while beautiful, is very invasive and can be controlled through knowledge, hunting, and consumption. Talk to any diver or snorkeler and you'll see that this fish, that you may never have heard of, is very prevalent in all of the warmer waters of the area, as well as some of the colder waters to the north, and, through conservation and awareness, we can do our best to help save the reef from this predator.