Invasive lionfish: from aquarium to dinner plate

The red lionfish (Pterois volitans) has decorated fish tanks, and invaded Atlantic waters, for decades. While sightings along the East Coast started popping up as early as the mid-1980s, lionfish began to spread rapidly, occupying reefs in the Florida Keys and the Bahamas in the 1990s. Since then, invasive red lionfish have been reported as far north as Rhode Island and, as of this January, tracked to the southern Gulf of Mexico off the Yucatan Peninsula.

Lionfish are venomous coral fish native to the South Pacific and Indian oceans. Its spines, which can deliver a venomous sting, are its defense against perceived predators, including humans. While the venom itself is not fatal to humans, the sting from the feathery plumes is extremely painful.

“There’s been no reported deaths, but some people who have been stung said they wish they were dead,” said Lad Akins, special projects manager of the Key Largo-based Reef Environmental Education Foundation, in a Miami Herald article. This raises concern to Florida officials for the safety of area beaches: Earlier this month, for example, a lionfish was captured in a protected swim area off a Florida coast (no one was injured).

But this is not the only danger these invasive fish cause: Research published earlier this month in Marine Ecology suggest current estimated rates of lionfish predation may be too conservative. If that is the case, then lionfish have a strong potential to cause irreparable damage to reef ecosystems by endangering or extinguishing whole fish populations. Lionfish prey on native juvenile fish, such as grouper and snapper and even the reef-cleaning parrotfish—a species whose population loss or reduction could greatly alter already fragile coral health.

Mark Hixon, an Oregon State University marine biologist who is leading National Science Foundation-funded research on the spread of lionfish, reported in a Science article last week that one lionfish is capable of reducing the number of other fishes by 79% in as few as 5 weeks. Native fish, Hixon suggests, do not perceive lionfish as a threat and swim right up to it. Hixon and his colleagues are looking into  predators, parasites or diseases that  naturally control lionfish populations.

According to Hixon and other researchers, there are other options to pursue for managing the fish in the meantime. That is, Hixon, Akins and others suggest eating the fish—after removing the venomous spines, of course. Renata Lana, outreach specialist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is taking it a step further and is organizing a tasting tour featuring lionfish in five U.S. cities this summer with celebrity chefs.

Chefs interviewed in an Associated Press article today describe lionfish as having a mild, delicate flavor and a texture similar to monkfish. The method of catching the fish that is considered the least damaging to the reef ecosystem is to dive to the corals with a net. Florida Chef Alexandra Maillis-Lynch said in the AP article that the fish have been popular at her restaurant for some time:

It is very difficult to get, believe it or not, because we just never get a consistent catch. But when I do get lionfish from fishermen, I can’t serve them fast enough.

Côté, I., & Maljkovic, A. (2010). Predation rates of Indo-Pacific lionfish on Bahamian coral reefs Marine Ecology Progress Series, 404, 219-225 DOI: 10.3354/meps08458

Author: Katie Kline

Moderator of EcoTone and ESA's communications officer.

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