Save a Reef--Eat a Lionfish


Photo by coda/FlickrCC

By now, those of us concerned about marine ecosystems and sustainability are pretty hesitant to eat much fish, especially reef fish like snapper and grouper. So it may come as a surprise to learn that perhaps the best contribution we can make to reef survival these days is to eat fish: lionfish. And lots of them.

The lionfish, prized denizen of salt-water aquariums everywhere, is native to the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. Sometime in the 1990s, however, a few of them were introduced into the Caribbean, perhaps as a result of a South Florida aquarium shattered in 1992's Hurricane Andrew, or simply because some fish-fancier got tired of cleaning the tank and dumped his fancy fish into Biscayne Bay. These prospered and multiplied, and by 2005 it was clear to marine biologists that Atlantic and Caribbean waters were facing a dangerous plague of lionfish.

More and more Bahamians are overcoming their anxieties about those venomous spines.

Why is the glamorous lionfish such a threat? Because it has no natural predators in these waters, because it eats everything that moves, and because it reproduces at a prodigious rate. A major study showed that one lionfish can reduce the number of juvenile fish on a patch of reef by 79% in just five weeks. Reefs all over the Caribbean—and especially in the Bahamas, the epicenter of the infestation—are already suffering from lionfish voracity: both the numbers and the diversity of reef fish have dropped conspicuously. What is worse, lionfish also eat the crustaceans responsible for reef cleaning and maintenance, meaning that the coral heads themselves—bulwark of the whole ecosystem—are in danger.

But the lionfish does not limit itself to the tropical reefs, no no. Lionfish have been sighted from Rhode Island to Venezuela: their many eggs float along in the Gulf Stream, seeding lionfish populations all along the shoreline, at depths from 5 to 150 feet. Because they feed principally on juvenile fish and crustaceans, they are considered a growing menace to the whole Atlantic fishing industry.

As often occurs in these cases of massive invasions by exotic species, the invader has a number of qualities that make it an excellent story-book villain. The lionfish is extravagantly gaudy. It is also venomous; its spiky dorsal fins produce acute pain. And nefarious: it surrounds and mesmerizes its prey with the waving of its great arched and spotted fins, then slurps it whole into its mouth, which unhinges to accommodate animals nearly its own size. Its gluttony is unusual in the animal world. If it can fit no more food in its belly it will regurgitate and continue eating.


Photo by coda/FlickrCC

While biologists continue to hope that some local predator will learn to eat lionfish, against so formidable an invader there doesn't seem to be much hope of an ecological solution. Individuals and local governments are therefore taking it upon themselves to do lionfish eradication drives, trapping and spearing the frilly fish by the dozens. And as luck would have it—here is where this article proves it does belong in a food magazine after all—it turns out that lionfish are good to eat. Extremely good. What to do against this invasion? Eat the invaders.

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Maggie Schmitt is a freelance researcher and translator based in Madrid.  She is currently working on a book called The Gaza Kitchen with Laila El-Haddad. Learn more at

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