Lionfish: Deadly or Delicious?

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Most of us have heard of the lionfish, but few people really know much about them. It’s time to get the facts straight, and learn how to stop this invasive fish from overtaking our waters.

Native to the southwestern Pacific and Indian Oceans, lionfish are a popular aquarium fish in the United States due to their unique appearance. Unfortunately, some aquarium owners grew tired of their fancy fish and instead of properly disposing of them, simply dumped them into the ocean off the coast of southern Florida. Eventually two of these unwanted lionfish met, one thing led to another, and now we have a bit of an issue. It didn’t take much, all the lionfish currently in this part of the world can be genetically traced back to just six female fish. Now the lionfish is a well-established invasive species throughout the entire Caribbean Sea as well as the majority of the Gulf of Mexico and the East coast of the United States from Florida to New York.

An invasive species is a non-native species that poses a threat economically, environmentally, or to human health. Lionfish have managed to affect all three.

Lionfish are considered to be the most detrimental marine invasive species in history and they owe this “success” to several factors. Perhaps the most well-known is that lionfish have venomous spines. This makes them rather unappetizing for the variety of predators that would normally help to keep their population in check. Remember those six fish that spawned this invasion? Well they were helped by the fact that one lionfish is able to produce over 2 million eggs per year. As if that wasn’t enough, lionfish hardly need to work to capture prey because our native fish don’t know them to be a predator and have no natural defenses against them. A lionfish in a Caribbean reef is like a little kid in a candy shop, and some have been gorging themselves so much that they are actually developing liver disease.

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Now that we know how they got here, let’s talk about why we should care. As previously mentioned, lionfish can eat a lot. They’ve been seen to reduce other fish populations by 90%. That fact alone should be enough to get the whole town hunting these menaces, but let’s go a bit deeper. Lionfish eat over 50 species of fish and crustaceans – including snapper, lobster, shrimp, grouper and grunts – the same ones we like to eat. Moreover, as the basis of much of the economic activity in coastal areas, these fish are crucial to the livelihoods of thousands of people along Panama’s Atlantic coast.

To make matters worse, lionfish primarily eat juvenile fish, preventing them from ever reproducing and wiping out subsequent generations of fish. Even if lionfish can’t decimate these species by eating their babies, they can likely do it by eating their food. If snappers and groupers don’t have any prey left, they probably won’t last too long. Additionally, these prey fish eat algae keep it from overgrowing corals, blocking out their sunlight and causing them to die. As one might expect, corals are the foundation of coral reefs and without them these ecosystems will quickly collapse.

Now that we know why lionfish are terrible (in their invasive range only) what can we do about them? Recently, several tournaments and local hunters have helped control lionfish populations around Bocas Town. However those efforts need to be maintained and farther away, populations of this disastrous fish remain healthy.
In my opinion, the best way to control the lionfish invasion is by eating lionfish. Lionfish are not only edible, but are also delicious. Their meat is delicate and is often compared to snapper or hogfish. I have yet to encounter someone who doesn’t like it. While the lionfish does have venomous spines, the venom is not fatal and is confined to the spines, which can be easily removed. The meat is venom free and perfectly safe to eat. I’ve eaten it several times and I’m still here.

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Lucky for us, the Cosmic Crab on Carenero Island (just a short 2 minute boat ride from Bocas Town) is currently serving up fresh lionfish daily. By asking for lionfish there and at other restaurants, you can help increase the demand, for fishermen, thus taking more lionfish out of our waters. You can also go directly to local fishermen and ask them to hunt lionfish.

If you’re the more adventurous type, you can jump in and start tackling the problem yourself. The only effective way to catch lionfish is to spear them, but because they’re pretty fearless little guys, they’re much easier to spear than other fish. So if you like hunting, this is a great pass-time to pick up. Bocas Water Sports offers lionfish hunting dives. It’s really fun, you’ll know you’re directly helping to improve our environment and you can bring home dinner!

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