(Florida Department of Environmental Protection; Paula Whitfield, NOAA)
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The lionfish invasion is happening in the western Atlantic waters off the east coast of the United States, but the fish are particularly problematic in the Florida Keys.
The major problem is that the lionfish, which has steadily expanded its range after being accidentally introduced in the in the mid-1980s, has no known natural predators in the Atlantic Ocean, according to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection. And sightings have been rising dramatically for the last five-plus years, said Amanda Nalley, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“The main issue with lionfish is you have this species that doesn’t have any known predators in our waters,” Nalley told the told the News-Herald. “They’re prolific breeders, so they can reproduce pretty rapidly. They’re also good eaters and can wipe out reef species.”
The solution? Florida residents are taking matters into their own hands, catching the fish and delivering it to restaurants to serve to guests.
“Their entire livelihood relies on the reefs, and they were starting to see the effects. More people were being stung and divers were seeing the population growth firsthand,” said Erin Spencer, a student at William & Mary who is doing her senior honors thesis on the lionfish situation. “Once they made the connection that these fish are the reason the reef is suffering, people took action.”
“We certainly want to see lionfish in more restaurants because as it goes into the market place, it creates a demand,” Lad Akins, director of special projects for REEF, a non-profit marine conservation group based in Key Largo, told the Sun-Sentinel. “Anything that removes them out of the water is a good thing.”
Although the best solution appears to be putting the fish on the dinner plate, there are obstacles.
“It’s deadly,” said David Link, manager of the Food Shack in Jupiter, one of at least nine Florida restaurants serving lionfish.
The venomous spines of the lionfish release a toxin that can be extremely painful. Hook and line capture of lionfish is rare, and they’re often found at depths of 85 feet or greater.
Tony Fins, spokesman for the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, a marine conservation agency, said that artifical reefs such as old boats compound the problem, taking the lionfish habitats down below 100 feet.
“Under 100 feet, divers can spear the fish,” he said. “The number of people who can dive lower than 100 feet is radically smaller.”
Moreover, even when a typical diver can access the fish, the diver captures less than 20 per day, which is not enough to sustain on a commercial level, said Spencer.
Much of the public’s reluctance to eat the lionfish stems from fear over the venomous spines contaminating the meat.
“You’re talking to these fishermen that could be bringing in valuable fish they know people would want and they’re getting less money for the lionfish meat,” Spencer said.
Erin Spencer hold a pair of lionfish. (William & Mary)
However, if people can find ways to bring in more of the fish, they do have a market, according to Akins.
“There are number of restaurants that want as much as they can take,” he said. Akins is stressing the situation at the annual Lionfish Summit, held by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, on Oct. 22 through Oct. 24.
Akins said people who fear the venom shouldn’t worry–when the fish is filleted, the meat is separated from where the venom is stored, and, regardless, any venom would be harmless after the meat is cooked.
Among the restaurants serving lionfish in Florida, Fish Fish Miami dishes it up whole and crispy; the Key Largo Conch House puts the lionfish meat in tacos; and Kev’s Cafe in Islamorada serves a southernwestern-style lionfish chowder.
Meanwhile, the Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association is teaming with REEF to raise awareness of the fish’s potential as food.
“We encourage (divers) to go ahead and harvest them and eat them if they like,” said Bob Cox, a diver and president of association, noting lionfish are most commonly found at depths of 85 feet or greater. “I’m finding more and more divers are actually going out to spearfish because they enjoy eating them.”
Cox and his organization are teaming up with REEF to hold a workshop on lionfish on Oct. 25 at the Junior League of Panama City, 309 W. Fifth St.
“What we want to do is get people educated on lionfish,” Cox said. “They eat smaller fish and we’re concerned they’re going to have an impact on our species, especially our game species.”