Culinary conservation hunts predator lionfish for human consumption
On a stormy September morning, a small fleet plies the choppy waters off Pinellas County and heads out into the Gulf of Mexico.
Dropping 100 feet below the surface, a scuba diver draws his spear and approaches a creature lurking in a dark crevice. It’s a predator capable of decimating native fish populations including grouper and snapper, and overrunning underwater reefs. But on this day, the predator is the prey for the second annual Lionfish Safari.
Drifting cautiously closer, only a few feet separate the two hunters. The spear is cocked and aimed, while large fins spread like dragon wings, loose skin waving like pirate ship sails, amongst long venomous spikes that can put a diver in a world of hurt. Suddenly the strike happens, and the spear rips into the invasive species. The diver shoves the lionfish into a special container, careful to avoid 18 venomous spines, which in extreme cases bring nausea, vomiting and other unpleasant allergic reactions. It’s a violent encounter, killing a destructive yet beautiful fish as the only viable way to stop the invasion … for now.
So how did a fish from the other side of the world become Florida’s most wanted invasive, hunted by underwater assassins? By being so good at being bad. Lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific, began showing up off Florida’s East Coast in the mid 1980s, likely released by aquarium owners. The importation of lionfish is now banned in Florida, but with no natural predators here, the invasive species spreads at an alarming rate along -- now found not only along the entire U.S. East Coast, but deep into the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.
The major problem with lionfish is their voracious appetite for native species, including Florida favorites like juvenile grouper and snapper, as well as lobster eggs and just about anything else they can get their vacuum like jaws around. The fish corner their prey using their large spiky fins and with a quick snap of the jaw and inhale, they swallow their prey whole. Sometimes they even shoot a jet of water at the victim first to confuse them, sending the hapless victim straight into their open mouths. Native fish, not used to these unusual tactics, become easy prey. By competing with native species for food and eating fish that keep reefs healthy, like algae-eating parrotfish, lionfish have the potential to disrupt the whole underwater ecosystem.