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Combating Lionfish? Try Eating Them!

Lionfish are beautiful. Their bodies are covered in stripes, and they have long, delicate fins that are nearly translucent in places. Native to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, they have unfortunately become not only a nuisance, but a major problem affecting reef health across America’s Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coastlines.

Lionfish were first identified off the Florida coast in 1985, and have spread widely since. They can be found throughout the Caribbean, up to Massachusetts, and in part of South America, all from an invasion that likely originated from only a handful of fish. Because of the problems they cause, there are no restrictions on their harvest in Florida.

Alex Fogg, a Fisheries Biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, explains it this way: “[Lionfish] are upsetting the balance of the native ecosystem. They have a voracious appetite and there are very few instances of lionfish being eaten, so they are essentially unchecked.”

lionfish, nature, invasive species, fish, florida
Alex Fogg dives for lionfish. Photo courtesy of Mark Miller at primofish.com.

“Think of it like this,” he continues, “We have the best of the best as far as lionfish genes go. The lionfish genes we have here are from fish that survived being captured in their native range in the Indo-Pacific, stored in an aquarium, transported via plane or boat to the United States, stored in another aquarium, [and then] sold and transported to another aquarium. If that wasn’t enough, they were then removed from that tank and likely released into the wild, where they survived and began reproducing.”

Their breeding cycles are prolific, to say the least. Females are capable of releasing two egg masses containing 12,000 to 15,000 eggs each every four days. With no natural predators, the lionfish can then reach densities of up to 200 individuals per acre. According to Fogg, “Studies have shown significant decreases in the number of fish present on reefs that lionfish have invaded. They are out-competing a number of native species and, in some cases, they are praying directly on these species. Small-bodied crustaceans and fish are their primary diet. ‘Cleaners’ of the reef are being consumed, and the reefs are therefore not being cleaned. This allows algae and other vegetation to overtake the reefs, resulting in coral die-offs.”

Across the state of Florida, divers like Fogg are banding together to clean the reefs of lionfish. “When I am targeting lionfish exclusively, it’s usually a pretty long day,” Fogg reports, “We meet at the dock around sunrise and plan to do anywhere from three to eight dives, depending on the depth. The goal is to remove as many lionfish as we can and try to return before sundown. Once back at the dock, we unload the hundreds of pounds of gear and then offload the fish. Unlike hunting other species of fish, divers spend a good amount of time on the bottom removing the fish.”

In addition to these dive clean-ups, local citizens, agencies and nonprofits are working together on another, rather simple solution to the lionfish problem: eating them. “Creating a demand for lionfish is one of the easiest ways to motivate commercial fishermen (divers) to get offshore and harvest them,” Fogg explains, “As the demand goes up, so will the price per pound and the motivation to hunt them.”

Chefs have a big role to play in the movement. At a recent Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day in Pensacola, Florida, local chefs were stimulating demand for the invasive species by providing free samples of cooked lionfish to any visitor who cared to try a bite. Blackened, in croquettes or served as sushi, lionfish is delicious in all its forms. Fogg agrees: “You can prepare lionfish any way you like, as the flesh is comparable to hogfish or any other mild, flaky fish.”

lionfish, nature, invasive species, fish, florida
A diver searches for lionfish. Photo courtesy of Mark Miller at primofish.com.

As a result of the increased demand for lionfish, organizations have released lionfish cookbooks as well as lists of restaurants serving lionfish. The idea is to use supply and demand for the benefit of the local reef ecosystems: the more lionfish are demanded by consumers, the more divers will be incentivized to remove them to sell.

Festivals like the one in Pensacola are important vehicles for raising awareness about lionfish and to stimulate divers to double-down on their clean-up efforts. In the tournament weekend alone, over 8,000 lionfish were turned in.

To make a dent in the lionfish population, locals and visitors can ask for lionfish at supermarkets and restaurants, and purchase them wherever possible. For those who love to dive, Fogg suggests becoming a Reef Ranger. Reef Rangers volunteer to clean lionfish from chosen reefs, by joining a team or working individually. Their interactive map not only shows where this invasive species has been spotted, but also the sites that still need reporting.

From chefs and local business owners to regulators, divers and citizen scientists, there is room for everyone to take part in the lionfish containment movement. Though it may be difficult to completely eradicate the species from our waters, by working together, regional, state and local communities can reduce the negative impacts on native populations as much as possible.

For more information and perspectives on the Pensacola Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day, click Voices for Biodiversity’s article here.


Erika, Maine, Photography

Erika Zambello is a writer, birder, and photographer living and working along the Emerald Coast of Florida. She has a master’s degree in environmental management from Duke Universityspecializing in ecosystem science and conservation. Her love of the outdoors was inspired by a childhood in Maine, and she returned for her National Geographic Young Explorer grant in 2015-2016She currently works as the Marine Economic and Tourist Resource Development Coordinator for Okaloosa County, where she manages ecotourism projectsErika believes in the power of communicating conservation, and she has written for BirdWatching Daily, 10000birds.com, Florida State Parks, the Conservation Fund, Triangle Land Conservancy, the Maine Sportsman, the Bangor Daily News, and more. Her passion for exploration was the inspiration for founding both One World, Two Feet and TerraComm.  Follow her adventures on Instagram at @a_day_in_the_landscape, and her 30 day challenges here.