Lionfish are a beautiful, resilient, majestic, and venomous fish. As it turns out, they are also incredibly delicious! While this species of fish has been living in harmony with the ecosystem in its native range in the Indo-Pacific oceans, their populations have exploded in Caribbean and Floridian waters since the early to mid 1990's. This presents a problem to the reef ecosystems in these areas that, if left unchecked, could have disastrous results. The lionfish may be beautiful to look at and be a prized aquarium fish for enthusiasts, but they are an extremely hardy fish and voracious eaters which can disrupt the natural balance of the existing ecosystem. Part of the problem stems from the fact that Caribbean lionfish have no natural predators. In the Indo-Pacific, they are hunted and eaten by sharks, moray eels, and several species of grouper, but in the Caribbean, these predators have not developed instincts to eat lionfish to help keep their population in check. Efforts starting in 2010 have been made by Roatan Marine Park Officials to train sharks to eat lionfish. At first, the sharks are spear-fed lionfish, and then later, wounded lionfish are left about for sharks to eat with hopes that they will develop a taste for the fish. Time will tell if this strategy gains traction with the shark community.
Another reason lionfish are such an invasive threat is that they are efficient hunters. This, coupled with the fact that many smaller species of Caribbean reef fish do not see them as natural predators makes feeding very easy. Lionfish eat many juvenile fish and much of the prey of groupers and snappers, which, in turn lowers their populations, hurts local fishing, and causes the reef ecosystem to be out of balance.
These well-fed fish are very skilled at reproduction. Mature females release egg clusters containing up to 15,000 eggs and release roughly 2,000,000 eggs every year. These eggs can spread with ocean currents and help extend the Atlantic coastal range of the fish. So how do we stop these fish from disrupting the marine food-web? Well, one solution employed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is captured in their tag-line "If we can't beat them, let's eat them!" The NOAA is campaigning to promote eating lionfish to restaurants and local establishments in the Honduran Bay Islands (and elsewhere in the Caribbean) are also starting to include lionfish on the menu.
But how is it safe to eat a poisonous fish? Well, lionfish are actually venomous, not poisonous, and once the venomous spines are removed, they are perfectly safe, and delicious to eat.
FUN FACT: Venomous and poisonous are two terms that are often used interchangeably, but there is a subtle difference. Venomous refers to a toxin that is injected into the bloodstream, whereas, poisonous refers to a toxin that is inhaled, absorbed, or ingested.
Of the many fins and spines of the lionfish, there are 13 dorsal, 2 pelvic, and 3 anal spines that are venomous. These can easily be removed when cleaning the fish prior to filleting it.
It should be noted that spear-fishing is actually prohibited in the Honduran Bay Islands, but a special reservation is made for lionfish and the fishing is only allowed with a Hawaiian sling style spear. These spears need to be registered for fishing in the Bay Islands and are essentially a metal rod with three barbs on the end and a rubber band. The device is cocked and hand-held similar to a sling-shot, though it is operated with one hand. To learn more about safely hunting and handling lionfish, there are a number of good courses that can be taken in the Bay Islands including the Caribbean Lionfish Containment Diver (CLCD) course at Utila Dive Center on Utila. Hunting lionfish can be a lot of fun as long as it is done safely and proper precautions are taken.
How Did the Lionfish Get Here?: There are several theories on how lionfish were introduced to the Caribbean from their native habitat. One theory is that 6 lionfish were released when hurricane Andrew destroyed an aquarium in southern Florida in 1992. Due to the resemblance to lionfish from the Philippines, another theory is that dissatisfied aquarium enthusiasts released them intentionally, or that eggs had possibly stowed away in ballast water from transport ships. My personal theory is that clever marketing of the Caribbean lifestyle and discount air carriers catering to the jet-setting fish demographic are almost solely responsible for the dramatic rise in lionfish populations. Perhaps we will never know...
Interesting Lionfish Facts:
- Most of the lionfish in the Caribbean are the red lionfish (Pterois volitans) species.
- Adult females can lay 2 million eggs per year and become sexually mature in one year.
- They are not poisonous to eat and taste great.
- If you do happen to get stung by one of the venomous spines: don't panic, rinse the wound, immerse the affected area in hot water for at least 30 minutes, attempt to elevate affected area, and seek medical attention.
- Lionfish usually live at depths up to 50 meters on the seaward side of reefs.
- Average adult lionfish is about 30 cm, but can grow up to 45 cm in length.
- Lionfish stomachs can expand up to 30 times their normal size when eating a large meal.
- Capable of eating another fish ⅔ their length.
It is interesting seeing how completely disinterested the lionfish are when another lionfish several feet away from them gets speared. These were some really large lionfish (around 38 cm) found near a wreck in Trujillo Bay, Honduras that made their way to the dinner table. Kennie runs a Scuba diving and snorkel operation out of Trujillo and has a brand new dive boat ready to take charters out to Guanaco and Cayos Cochinos!