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.

The government of the Bahamas has been quick to realize the danger the lionfish plague represents to the islands' economy and ecology, and as a result, the Department of Fishery has launched a Bahamas National Lionfish Response Plan, which includes demonstrations of lionfish hunting and cleaning, and promotion of lionfish as an eating fish to substitute threatened reef species. Restaurant consumption of lionfish has not yet taken off—consumers are wary—but more and more Bahamians are overcoming their anxieties about those venomous spines and learning to prepare the fish safely. Lionfish are so abundant and so easy to catch that it does not seem impossible that the plan might work.

How does one catch and clean lionfish? One can either spear them directly (because they have no predators, they are fearless and easily approached) or else lure them out from their rocky nooks by leaving a jar of live bait fish on the seafloor for a while, then scooping the lionfish up with a net as it approaches the jar. Lionfish venom is deactivated by heat, so serious hunters carry a small blowtorch on the boat and heat the fins as soon as a fish is caught, neutralizing them. Others hold the fish with tongs and cut off the fins with a wire cutter.

Once freed of its terrible spikes, the fish can be scaled, gutted, and prepared like any other fish. It seems folks often confuse "venomous" with "poisonous": the fish is not poisonous, it just must be handled with great care until its fins are removed.

In the Bahamas, the meat is treated as grouper would be: beer battered and fried, stewed with tomatoes and served on grits, or blackened with spices on the grill. It is firm and sweet, not unlike sea bass.

A few first experiments have been made to generate a market for the fish away from acutely effected coastal areas. One North Carolina dive center, Discovery Diving, has begun monthly lionfish hunts, sending the catch to chefs in New York (Cookshop) and Chicago (Northpond Restaurant) who have tested it in their kitchens, with very favorable responses.

So can we eat our way out of a plague? It seems the perfect solution: other species are terribly overfished, and the spread of lionfish must be checked. If there is a culinary use for them, so much the better. It is a fitting irony that for once we can confront an ecological crisis by consuming more rather than less. While individually spearfishing a venomous reef fish may not be the most commercially efficient undertaking, in the long run there is no doubt that checking the lionfish's conquest of Atlantic and Caribbean waters will benefit all.

Given the range of habitats being taken over by lionfish, it is unlikely that we could hunt them entirely out of existence, but it does seem that hunting slows down their negative impact upon native reef life. Only beware! Once the American appetite for lionfish has been whetted we may find we'll have to defend the inoffensive lionfish of Asia from our own colonizing voracity.