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If You Can’t Beat Them, Eat Them!

A quarter-century after the first lionfish was caught off Florida, these predatory creatures are threatening our marine ecosystem. Fortunately, they’re delicious.

Originally a popular aquarium fish imported from the Indio-Pacific, lionfish have found their way into the coastal waters of the Atlantic, threatening local marine ecosystems.

Originally a popular aquarium fish imported from the Indio-Pacific, lionfish have found their way into the coastal waters of the Atlantic, threatening local marine ecosystems.

They’re beautiful; they’re also bad. These aggressive predators flaunt their colorful zebra-stripes and long, showy pectoral fins while wreaking havoc on the reef community by devouring juvenile fish, shrimp and crabs. The “they” are lionfish, an invasive species native to the reefs and rocky crevices of the Indio-Pacific that have been introduced to the warm waters along the U.S. eastern seaboard as far north as Rhode Island and south to Central and South America as well as the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, most likely through the aquarium trade.

The speed and intensity of their invasion is scary. The first record of a lone lionfish in the Atlantic off the coast of South Florida was recorded in 1985; today they number in the tens of thousands. Their rapid reproduction rate, voracious feeding habits and ambush attack style of seductively dancing towards their prey before quickly sucking it into their mouth like a vacuum have made lionfish a successful and most unwelcome invader.

The Bahamas marine ecosystem has been hit especially hard as lionfish have achieved a critical mass in Bahamian waters. Lakeshia Anderson, Assistant Fisheries Officer with the Bahamas Department of Marine Resources (DMR) is among those most knowledgeable about the situation. “Lionfish pose a serious threat to an environment already stressed by over-fishing, pollution and climate change. They are able to consume 79 percent of native reef fish populations in a five-week period – this is especially alarming considering their high rate of reproduction, extensive invasion range at depths beyond reach for recreational divers, and their dietary preference,” Lakeshia explains. “Lionfish can greatly impact the commercial and recreational fishing industry and the livelihoods that depend on them.”

To counter the invasion, the Bahamas has developed a National Lionfish Response Plan that prioritizes management goals to be implemented as a means of controlling lionfish populations. Among them is commercializing lionfish as a fishery resource. “The DMR and partner organizations have been conducting community meetings and lionfish demonstrations on several Bahamian islands to illustrate cleaning and spine-removal techniques to fishers and the general public,” says Lakeshia. “We are also encouraging the public to consume lionfish.”

Read the entire article in the September/October 2011 issue