I still remember the first time I encountered an invasive lionfish. It was in the late spring of 2010 during a scuba dive on the North Wall of Grand Cayman. For those unfamiliar, the North Wall is where the coral reefs surrounding the island, at 50 to 70 ft. in depth, abruptly drop off to the 5,000+ ft. abyss below (which, by the way, is very similar to the moment I first step foot in a women’s clothing store with my wife). We descended the wall to around 100 ft. and ran an eastward course. Much to my surprise, nearly every overhang we encountered was home to at least one large adult lionfish.
This dive ended with over a dozen of these fantastically finned fish making an appearance. Much like the wall itself, this dive served as sheer contrast between the beautiful native Caribbean reefs that we know and the dark unknown this epidemic has brought to the tropical western Atlantic.
But we get plenty of the doom and gloom on a daily basis; the focus of this article is on the successful strides being made to control the invasion.
Culling the herd, one specimen at a time
Not without its fair share of naysayers when efforts began, it appears the manual method of removal with spears (and similar devices) can and will make a difference. A recent study by scientists at Oregon State University indicates that reducing lionfish populations between 75 and 95% in certain areas will allow native fish populations to rebound.
The key point here is that total eradication, which is all but impossible, isn’t necessary for reefs to recover. And this isn’t just theory; on select sites in the Bahamas, researchers have removed enough lionfish to maintain these levels. For their efforts, they’ve seen the native prey populations increase by 50–70%. In areas where no intervention took place, native species continued to decline and disappear.
The bottom line is, this method works! If you’re a diver, I encourage you to take part (after checking local regulations). Grab a spear and make a difference while you enjoy your dives.
What better way to rid an area of a nuisance than turning its capture into a team-based competition and putting a bounty on the most, largest, and smallest specimens? That’s the general idea behind a lionfish derby.
The first derby was put on by REEF (Reef Environmental Education Fund) and took place in Green Turtle Cay, Abaco, Bahamas back in 2009. It was a rousing success and led to the removal of 1,400+ lionfish. They now operate multiple derbies every year and have collected more than 12,000 lionfish to date. Other organizations have also launched their own competitions throughout the Caribbean, Bahamas, and tropical western Atlantic with great participation and success.
If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em
Eating a lionfish has got to be dangerous, right? Quite the contrary! When the venomous spines are removed, lionfish are safe to prepare and consume as you please. In fact, that’s just what many restaurants around the affected range are doing to not only promote awareness, but also position lionfish as a seafood delicacy.
I look forward to the day “Caribbean lionfish” is regularly found on the menu at seafood restaurants throughout the States. And that’s one step closer to a reality with ventures such as Spinion, Ltd. This business, based on Grand Cayman Island, was started by a couple from Chicago and a native Caymanian. They’ll soon begin exporting culled lionfish to the US market.
Also, if you’re curious how lionfish taste, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. This white, flaky, buttery fish is comparable to grouper, hogfish, or even mahi mahi depending on where it was collected.
If you’d like to try your hand at preparing lionfish, check out The Lionfish Cookbook. It’s full of great recipes and proceeds from its sale support REEF’s conservation efforts.
Educating the masses
When you encounter an aquarist who isn’t at least somewhat familiar with the plight non-native lionfish are causing (and presumably lives under a rock), they usually don’t understand why you would want to kill such a majestic creature. However, when they get all the background, usually they’re ready to go all King Henry VIII on any Caribbean lionfish they encounter.
In Florida, FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) actively promotes awareness of these non-native fish and their effects on coral reefs. Last year, they hosted the Lionfish Summit, which brought together divers, resource managers, conservationists, and scientists to form battle plans to attack the finned invaders and continue getting the word out.
In the US and beyond, REEF helps educate the public, regularly conducts underwater surveys, and organizes the previously mentioned lionfish derbies. These surveys provide great insights into how lionfish are affecting native populations.
Other organizations have also joined the fight, such as the World Lionfish Hunters Association, with public outreach, educational programs, and direct-action hunting programs.
In the face of a seemingly insurmountable task, we can all make a difference. Ongoing efforts and new ideas will be the catalyst for native habitats to reach equilibrium with these invasive predators.
Tell us about what you’ve done to help fight lionfish in the comments below!