Lionfish – Tasty on Pizza, Hell on the Ecosystem

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Too pretty to live photo by Louis Cahill

Lionfish may be the mother of all invasive species.

Take a moment to think about this: a lionfish (native to the Indo-Pacific) has no natural predators in the Atlantic ocean. It can live up to fifteen years, reaching sexual maturity in less than a year. Once mature, a pair can spawn as often as every four days. A single mature female can produce up to two million eggs per year and they will tolerate a population density of two hundred adults per acre. Just the math involved scares me, but you don’t even have to get out the calculator to see where this is going.

Introduced in several locations in Florida as a result of aquarium damage during hurricane Andrew, lionfish have been making their way around the Caribbean and east coast of the US for the past twelve years, but in the last three years the population has exploded. They are now found as far north as North Carolina and south into South America. They are rampant in the Bahamas as well as the Florida Keys and are now common in the Florida panhandle.

Why am I so worried about this beautiful tropical fish? Here are a few more fun lionfish facts. Lionfish prey on almost every other species of fish. They also eat their spawn. They decimate populations of juvenile tropical fish including sport fish. They exhibit site fidelity and once established, reduce populations of other fish by as much as ninety-five percent. They grow to twenty inches and will eat fish over half their size. What they don’t eat, they out compete. Oh yeah, and they’re poisonous! Nice neighbors, huh?

So what do we do about all this? What we, as a species, do best of course. We kill the little bastards. That sounds simple enough but it’s a big job. It is estimated that we will have to kill twenty-seven percent of the lionfish population per month just to maintain current numbers. OK, now I’m really ready to kill some lionfish, but wait. On my last trip to the Bahamas I saw my first lionfish in the wild. I wanted to kill it and looked around for something to do the job and then someone said, “I wouldn’t get close to that thing, it’ll kill you”. This scared and frustrated me. I didn’t know what to do. So I went looking for some answers.

I spoke with Forest Phillips of Southern Skin Divers Supply in Birmingham, AL. Forest leads diving trips all over the world and has killed more lionfish than he can remember. Here’s what he told me. First of all a lionfish sting is like a bad bee sting, not a death sentence. A few people have actually died from it due to allergic reactions in remote locations with no medical care, but generally hot water run over the sting will dissipate the poison and lessen the pain of the sting. Medications used for stingray stings work, too.  He recommends gloves for handling them as a precaution.

As far as a safe way to kill a lionfish, there is a short spear that looks a bit like a sling shot made for the job but any spear will work. I wouldn’t rule out a pointy stick. Once the little guy is on the spear, stuff him directly into a bag made of a heavy enough material that the spines which carry the poison will not punch through, then kill the next one. It’s apparently quite easy.

Best of all, it seems they are really tasty! They are considered a delicacy many places and are recently attracting the attention of restaurants here in the US. Forest has eaten them in all manner of dishes from ceviche to pizza. Dressing them is simple. All you do is cut the spines off and then filet them like any other fish. The poison is all in the spines.

Eating lionfish is clearly not the answer to this large a problem, but Forest has a suggestion. “Any lionfish I find that isn’t big enough to eat I will wound and release it. It’s not long before a grouper or a snapper or eel will eat it. I’ve seen it happen time and again.” His theory is that the predators will learn to hunt them. And he’s not alone. Fishermen in Honduras have been training sharks to hunt lionfish. That’s right, training. They start by feeding the sharks the meet, then they feed them wounded lionfish and sure enough, they catch on. So if we can’t eat them all, maybe we can get some help.

So next time you see a lionfish, don’t be afraid. Just poke it with a stick and let nature do the rest. That’s how we got to the top of the food chain and it may just be how we save the reefs.

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Forest Phillips cleaning lionfish

Here’s the recipe for Forest’s “on the boat” Lionfish Ceviche.

• Cut slivers of lionfish the width of a pencil.

• Place in a ziplock bag with tomato and onion.

• Add the juice of one lemon and one lime.

• Leave in the sun for fifteen minuets. the juice does the cooking.


You can find more lionfish recipes HERE


Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline

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6 thoughts on “Lionfish – Tasty on Pizza, Hell on the Ecosystem

  1. Pingback: A Closer Look / The Dreaded Lionfish | Gink and Gasoline, The Blog home of Kent Klewein and Louis Cahill-Fly Fishing photography, video, tips and news.

  2. Longer term many people are trying to develop a robot to automatically target lionfish and kill them. If you hunt around YouTube you will see some early protypes.

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