Sea stewards unite in the ongoing battle of retaking our reefs from the invasive lionfish. On Saturday, October 18 at Harvey E. Oyer Park in Boynton Beach, a REEF [Reef Environemental Education Foundation] sanctioned eBoat Listings Lionfish Derby will take to Palm Beach County waters to help cleanup our reefs.
“Lionfish can completely decimate a reef,” said Jessica Anderson, avid diver and event organizer. “The point of the tournament is to kill as many lionfish as we can because we are the only control in these waters.”
The lionfish invasion has been widespread in the Western Atlantic, with the first confirmed sighting in the 1980s in Biscayne Bay. It now sweeps as far north as Rhode Island, to as far south as Venezuela, infiltrating all of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico as well. A result of coastal dwellers dumping the ornamental fish from fish tanks into the ocean, the predatory fish has gone from invasive to an established species, has no known threat, breeds at a clip that is almost unfathomable (a single female produces up to 15,000 eggs every reproduction cycle, which is every month), and they have a voracious appetite.
“Lionfish are gluttonous predators and eat a wide variety of prey items, from ecologically important fish like parrotfish, to economically important fish like juvenile grouper and snapper,” said Elizabeth Underwood, REEF’s Lionfish Program Coordinator. “Because they are eating fish such as reef grazers, which help keep algae numbers low, lionfish have the potential to throw off the balance of coral reef ecosystems. If you start reducing the algae eaters, algae growth is going to increase, which then smothers the living coral, the basis of the entire reef ecosystem.”
|Lionfish invasion graphic from REEF.org and NOAA, depicting the spread of the fish beginning in confirmed sighting in 1985.|
This is why attacking the problem head-on is of such importance, and events like the lionfish derby on October 18 can do so much good, not just on the public awareness front, but reducing numbers as well.
Beginning at 8 a.m., teams of boats and divers will strike out to sea to collect as many lionfish as possible. Teams will return to Harvey E. Oyer Park at 3 p.m. for a weigh-in that doubles as a public awareness campaign – of the fish not collected for scientific research, the rest are cleaned, filleted and fried for a public tasting at the events after party (open to the public, $15 admission). Data is collected on every fish caught – size, location caught, total number bagged – which is given to REEF for their ongoing research projects. The hope is to remove as many lionfish as possible (REEF’s August 16 PBC derby bagged 639 lionfish in a single day), which can make a marked difference in terms of ecosystem health.
In the recent study “Linking removal targets to the ecological effects of invaders: a predictive model and field test,” conducted by Oregon State University and Simon Fraser University, scientists showed that by reducing lionfish populations of specific locations from 75-95 percent, reef populations rebounded by as much as 70 percent:
“…monitoring the consequences for native fish populations on 24 Bahamian patch reefs over 18 months. We found that reducing lionfish below predicted threshold densities effectively protected native fish community biomass from predation-induced declines. Reductions in density of 75- 95%, depending on the reef, were required to suppress lionfish below levels predicted to over-consume prey. On reefs where lionfish were kept threshold densities, native prey fish biomass increased by 50-70%” (Green et al.).
This study, though limited in scope by comparison to the whole of the Western Atlantic, does give one hope that continued efforts like these lionfish tournaments, and recreation divers who have ecological or hunger motives, can make a difference, even if it is just one speared fish at a time.
“I don’t think people understand how bad it is out there,” said Anderson, who on a recent dive snagged 28 lionfish in just 30 minutes, by herself. “Just a few years ago, you might have seen a few on the reef. Now, they’re the only fish on some of these reefs.”
It’s a difficult problem to convey to those that have not seen it firsthand, 40 to 100 feet underwater. But with the way things are going, when the cost of locally caught grouper and snapper starts running $40 a plate, people may begin to take notice. At that point, however, things may be too late. Which is why events like these lionfish derbies can make a difference. As REEF’s Underwood told me this summer, “one popular slogan is ‘Save a reef, eat a lionfish’ or ‘Eat em to Beat em.’ If you drive up demand for lionfish, it may incentivize more people to go out there and remove lionfish to then sell to restaurants.”
It’s a slow process for many reasons, one being these fish are hand-caught by divers, which can be extremely expensive. The other, lionfish are relatively small when compared to other economically important species like grouper and snapper, where one fish can bring in multiple plates worth of fillets. But one of the biggest misconceptions is the “poisonous” nature of the species. Lionfish are venomous, not poisonous, much like a snake; the venom can only affect you if you are stuck by a spine. What’s more, the venom is denatured by heat, so the simple act of cooking the fish destroys venom – though there is NO venom in the meat.
Though the constant barrage of disheartening news on ocean health can really make one depressed, it is nice to hear that there are people trying to make a difference. Much needs to be done to help the world’s seas – it is more of a generational task to help reverse the tide of humanity’s misdeeds – but it has to start somewhere. And who’s to say that this army of compressed air breathing, polespear-carrying warriors is not the first push of oceanic stewards in the growing wave of change.
- Join the fight on October 18 at Harvey E. Oyer Park in Boynton Beach. Interesting in taking the plunge? Register here – $120 per boat, which includes four tournament entries. For registrants, a mandatory captain’s meeting will take place at Old Key Lime House on Thursday, October 16 at 6 p.m.
- Following weigh-in, an after party and cookout will take place at the park. Admission is $15.
- For more information, visit blog.eboatlistings.com.
Interested in trying some lionfish at home? Lad Akins and REEF published The Lionfish Cookbook: The Caribbean’s New Delicacy with the help of Chef Tricia Ferguson, giving divers and stewards of the sea ideas on how to prepare the fish.
“Lionfish is a highly regarded food fish, a delicacy, and is really the only weakness it has. So we are trying to exploit that fact,” Akins says. “And the fish is good for you, too. Some of the nutritional analysis being done has shown that lionfish have higher Omega 3s than a lot of the commonly eaten species like snapper, grouper and tuna.”
Below are links to some of the recipes from The Lionfish Cookbook. Enjoy!
Spiced Up Fillet
A seafood snack with a Cajun kick that is good for our sea, Spicy Lionfish, from The Lionfish Cookbook: The Caribbean’s New Delicacy.
Share the tasty conservation efforts with these bite-sized lionfish nachos from The Lionfish Cookbook: The Caribbean’s New Delicacy.
For a little help filleting the catch, check out the video below produced by REEF.org.