All About Lionfish
Lionfish are one of the most invasive aquatic species in history. They have been decimating reefs and weakening ecosystems across the Western Atlantic for over 30 years, unchecked and unchallenged. Now is the time to fight.
In the 1980s, two visually identical species of lionfish (Pterois miles and P. volitans) were introduced to the Atlantic off the coast of Florida, most likely from the aquarium trade. Since then, lionfish populations have exploded, spreading throughout the Caribbean Sea, into the Gulf of Mexico, as far north as North Carolina and as far south as Venezuela.
The impact of the lionfish invasion has been devastating. In heavily invaded areas lionfish can reach densities of 200 adults per acre. They consume almost everything in their path, reducing some native fish species by up to 90%.
Some of their prey species include snapper and grouper, and the reduction of these commercially-important fish has hurt local fisheries. They also eat herbivorous fish species, which are vital to coral reef health because they keep algae in check.
As lionfish populations grow, the invaded reefs become more susceptible to the effects of disease, overfishing, pollution and climate change. Invasive lionfish have now contributed to the listing of seven coral species as “threatened”.
Ecology and Behavior
Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific, and they’re an important part of the ecosystem in their native range. They are active hunters, and use a variety of hunting techniques to catch prey including stalking, herding, ambushing, and cornering prey with their large fins.
Adult lionfish can grow to 18 inches (45 cm), while juveniles are usually less than 4 inches (10 cm). They are slow-moving and don’t scare easily, so they rely on their venomous spines to keep predators away. It’s not known exactly what keeps the population under control in their native range, but groupers, sharks and moray eels have all been seen eating lionfish.
Why is the lionfish so destructive?
Every year thousands of species are introduced to new places all over the world. So how has the lionfish been so successful, and why is it so destructive? It’s because lionfish are evolved for invasion success.
- They mature quickly, produce millions of offspring per year, and reproduce every four days regardless of the season.
- They are generalist predators, capable of eating anything up to half their body length, and they don’t provoke the usual avoidance response in prey.
- They have venomous spines that will repel almost any predator.
- They are resistant to most diseases and parasites in their invasive range.
Fighting the Invasion
As long as the lionfish go unchecked, the invaded areas cannot recover.
Luckily, efforts are underway to remove the lionfish and reduce the damage done. Lionfish are easy to spear, so every year thousands are hunted by recreational divers and killed in regular competitions.
Despite the colorful, venomous spines, lionfish meat is not poisonous. It has more tri-omegas than wild atlantic salmon, it’s low in mercury, and it’s tasty too! Many high-end restaurants serve lionfish as an “exotic” dish, and there’s even a lionfish cookbook! Unfortunately, catching lionfish is currently too time-consuming to make it a cost-effective part of the food industry.
Alex Fogg and Paul Grammar proudly display their catch.
And this is where traps will come in handy. Lionfish University is working with NOAA to develop an easy-to-use, inexpensive trap that will only catch lionfish. This will not only help remove lionfish from areas divers can’t reach, but will allow local fisherman to catch, eat, and sell lionfish.
How You Can Help
If you’re diving and you see a lionfish where it doesn’t belong, report it to the US Geological Survey here… and then kill it!
Cooking with Lionfish
Invasive lionfish are a delicious, healthy, and sustainable alternative to other white fishes such as snapper, grouper, dorado, and wahoo.
Lionfish is naturally low in saturated fats, high in healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, and low in bio-accumulated toxins such as mercury.
There’s a new lionfish cookbook out, called Cook Lionfish! Click here to order it in print or for Kindle.
Lionfish meat is not poisonous, but their spines can give you a nasty sting. This video shows how a lionfish’s spines can be easily and safely removed.
Stacy Frank is excited to try a new recipe from Cook Lionfish