Lionfish: Eat a Fish, Save the Reef

Those who dive in Florida’s reefs have gotten to know a certain beautiful, spiny fish not native to our waters. It’s generally agreed that the highly invasive species from the Indo-Pacific got its start from pet owners. Lionfish are an attractive, showy fish, but they also eat everything, including other fish. So it’s likely that when a lionfish grew too big for an aquarium and started eating all its neighbors, frustrated owners who didn’t want to kill it simply released it into the ocean. This happened enough times that a population was created.

“Genetic studies have shown that the population came from about ten individual fish,” says Dr. Eric Johnson, Assistant Professor at the University of North Florida’s Biology Department. Most non-natives that are introduced in this way simply live for a few years and die off because they aren’t suited to the environment, but since lionfish are so adaptable and have no natural predators, their population has grown exponentially and can be found from the Florida Keys all the way to the coast of the Carolinas and Virginia, as well as throughout the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, Bahamas, and south into Brazil.

Lionfish are adaptable because they eat anything, and their venomous spines dissuade predators. These omnivorous fish can potentially have a huge impact on our fish population, swallowing whole anything that’s half their body size. When they’re young, they stick to small crustaceans, and when they’re older they move up to small fish. Many of those small fish are vital to the health of the reefs. But it isn’t only the health of the reefs that has Johnson worried. Biologists are now starting to see them in Florida estuaries, which some of our larger species use as a nursery for juveniles. Not culling the populations on the reefs could have devastating consequences for commercial and recreational fishing.

Dan Lindley of Offshore Dive Charters out of Mayport says, “They breed like ants.” Despite their venomous spines, Lindley says they’re relatively easy to catch. The meat itself has no venom and, unlike pufferfish, they are not risky to eat. Lionfish aren’t a bait-and-hook or net kind of fish because they often stick close to protected reef areas. They are pole speared instead and placed inside containers during a scuba dive lasting 15-25 minutes.

The fish themselves, according to Bill Pinner, owner of The Fish Company, are about a 30-33% yield in meat, and they range in size from about ¾ pound to 1 ½ pounds, although, says Pinner, “We once got one in that was 3 pounds, but that’s unusual.” Lionfish is on his menu sporadically because he aims to get the fish from local waters rather than from Tampa, Miami, or the Keys. “It eats like triggerfish or flounder. They’re good to eat, but hard to get to,” explains Pinner. Dr. Eric Johnson says the taste comparison he’s run into most is hogfish or grouper. Everyone EU has spoken to agrees that it’s a light white fish that’s excellent to eat.

According to a paper on the Nutritional Properties of the Invasive Lionfish published in AACL Bioflux in 2011, lionfish isn’t just delicious, it’s nutritious too. They found that “Lionfish contain a higher percentage of healthy n-3 fatty acids than species groups such as snapper, grouper, and bluefin tuna. Lionfish contain a relatively low concentration of the less-desirable fatty acids.”

Here in Jacksonville, Lionfish is hard to find in either in the fish case or on a menu, mainly because not enough people know about them. According to Captain Lindley, “Restaurants are starting to buy them. It’s big down south in the Keys and the demand has been slowly working its way up the state.” For most restaurants it’s a relatively new fish, and they won’t risk having them on the menu if they think folks won’t order them or don’t know about them. “It’s driven by the public’s want for them,” says Dr. Johnson.

Events that push awareness are happening locally, like the North East Florida Lionfish Rodeo held last year in August, where cash prizes were given for catching the largest, most, and smallest. There’s also the month-long NE Florida Lionfish Blast held in the spring. During the Northeast Florida Lionfish Rodeo (which only lasted about 12 hours), Dr. Johnson says the count was 1102 lionfish, some of which were used in a biological survey in order to better study the species.

If you’re wondering how you can help with the lionfish problem, there are a few things you can do. Those who dive and fish can catch and cook them or participate in lionfish derbies, and those who don’t can start asking restaurants and fishmongers to stock them.

About Erin Thursby