Lionfish – The Other White Meat

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Because of their striking appearance, elegant beauty, and hardy nature, Lionfish are popular among aquarium enthusiasts. Lionfish adapt very well to life in captivity, and thrive in warm, tropical waters. 

Native to Indonesia in the Indo-Pacific oceanic region, Lionfish are now an invasive species of fish rapidly taking over coral reefs in the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean and quickly becoming one of the most serious man-made ecological disasters ever witnessed. 

Lionfish Invasion

The lionfish invasion is thought to have started more than 25 years ago when they were likely released from household aquariums into the tropical waters of South Florida. Today, they are out-breeding, out-competing and out-living native fish and other natural marine species throughout the Western Hemisphere.  The consequences are far reaching, and not only impact the environment, but also impact over 42 million people who make their living from commercial and tourist fishing, and reef tourism industries.

Lionfish are highly prolific

They can release eggs every 4 days and up to 2 million eggs per year. Their larvae also have an incredibly high survival rate, meaning that most eggs released easily become juvenile fish and grow to adulthood relatively free from environmental pressures. Lionfish are also aggressive hunters with very few natural predators. They have venomous spines that cause serious pain, making them hard to swallow. They use lighting fasts strikes to attack their prey and can gulp down dozens of whole fish in a single bite. The damage they inflict is unprecedented as one lionfish can reduce native marine creatures within its territory by 80% to 90% within just 5 weeks.

Lionfish are also not picky eaters. They consume invertebrate, shrimp and small fish that eat parasites off reef fish, turtles, and other marine life – fish that keep these creatures healthy. They also feed upon other important species of reef grooming fish, such as parrot fish and goatfish, who are essential in maintaining the health by of coral reefs by keeping algae that suffocates coral in check. Coral reefs are also home to juvenile fish such as grouper and snapper, which lionfish are also fond of. There is no doubt that the lionfish invasion is impacting the commercial fishing supply, and that the consumer price of these fish will go up as the species diminishes due to lionfish predation.

The damage lionfish inflict upon coral reefs also impacts the global environment. Coral reefs not only provide shelter and protection to entire schools of juvenile marine creatures, but the reefs themselves generate half of earth’s oxygen, and absorb nearly one-third of the carbon dioxide generated from burning fossil fuels. 

The Other White Meat 

Unfortunately, NOAA researchers have determined that invasive lionfish populations may continue growing and agree that complete eradication of lionfish is impossible.  But there are a few ways to keep the population in check. One of the best methods is sustainable harvesting for human consumption via spearfish hunting. 

Fortunately for eco-friendly fish lovers, lionfish are good to eat. A misconception is that lionfish are poisonous, but they are not.  They are venomous only in the exterior spines, but the flesh is completely healthy to eat and delicious. It has white, flaky meat that is similar in taste and texture to snapper and lends itself to many different types of recipes. Lionfish are also high in heart healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, and low in saturated fats and heavy metals such as mercury.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) are encouraging spearfisherman to harvest lionfish and sell them to local restaurants and suppliers.  Consequently, lionfish hunting is fast becoming a popular and profitable sport among spearfishermen. Many hunters are linking up via Facebook groups such as “Lionfish Hunting” and “Lionfish Hunters of Florida” in what’s become known as “Lionfish Derbies”. On a typical day, some of these derbies can engage between 10-20 divers and eliminate more than 100-150 lionfish at a time.

What You Can Do

The good news is that we can do our part to help the environment and native marine species by consuming lionfish.  It is the ultimate in responsible seafood choices and helps our reefs and native fish stocks recover from environmental pressures.  Lionfish are now becoming more commonly served in restaurants alongside snapper, grouper, dorado, wahoo, amberjack, tunas and billfish. Fishmonger Approved encourages you to ask about the availability of lionfish on the menu next time you are looking for seafood options when dining out. 

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