For all those real-life Steve Zissous out there, the devastating impact lionfish have had on our local marine ecosystem is nothing new. The vociferous ornamental fish indigenous to Indo-Pacific waters has been running amuck in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea ever since its introduction to these waters in the 1980s. This invasive species, a prolific breeder with an endless appetite, has put an inordinate amount of stress on the delicate ecosystem, decimating reefs and putting a serious strain on local fisheries; there simply is no natural predator of these spiny red devil fish, except, of course, for man.
“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,” says Lad Akins, Director of Special Projects at REEF (The Reef Environmental Education Foundation), a nonprofit dedicated to conserving marine ecosystems by educating, enlisting and enabling marine enthusiasts to become stewards of our seas.
To that point, REEF hosts annual fishing competitions called Lionfish Derbies that are one-part pest removal, one-part public awareness campaign. On August 16, Sailfish Marina in Singer Island will host the fourth annual Palm Beach County Lionfish Derby in an attempt to put a serious hurting on the population just off our shores, while bringing the community together for an old-fashion fish fry led by Cod & Capers. “There are many people out there who have never heard of lionfish,” says Elizabeth Underwood, REEF’s Lionfish Program Coordinator. “One of our biggest goals with these derbies is to change that, to raise awareness.”
|Lionfish invasion graphic from REEF.org and NOAA, depicting the spread of the fish beginning in confirmed sighting in 1985.|
The lionfish problem has had a cascading effect on the marine ecosystem, going well beyond simply eating a bunch of juvenile fish humans had eyes on for potential entrees, but throwing off the whole balance of the environment. “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,” says Underwood. “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.”
But there is a silver lining to all the doom and gloom as Underwood explains, “Studies are showing that if you can keep lionfish numbers to a certain low level, it allows our native fish to recover. So if we can keep lionfish numbers low, our native prey fish stand a chance. That’s one of the biggest ways these derbies help, by removing large numbers of lionfish in a single day.”
Last year, the PBC Lionfish Derby removed 612 fish in a single day. Those fish, once landed at the marina, were divvied up for research (derbies act as a great way for scientists to quickly collect a large amount of samples) and a large public tasting. Filleted and cooked dockside, samples are passed out to anyone wanting to take a bite. “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.”
Counter to popular belief, lionfish flesh is edible; the spines are the only part of the fish containing venom. The flesh is white and firm, with a flavor that is a cross between hogfish and grouper, and is ideal fried, blackened or sautéed. On top of removing hundreds of lionfish from the water, the lionfish derby shows attendants to how to properly handle, prepare, fillet and cook the catch—and perhaps, if enough people begin to demand it, creates a market for the fish.
On the PR front, the derbies are working, spreading awareness about the lionfish problem and ways for people to help, which ultimately leads to more removal of fish in the wild. REEF’s Sanctioned Derby Program, a grass-roots program designed to help local organizations start their own removal competitions, is helping spread the message across the state and the Caribbean, with smaller derbies popping up allover. “People are definitely starting to take notice of this and recognize it’s a serious issue,” says Underwood, “[but] there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Be a part of the solution and join REEF and the Palm Beach County Lionfish Derby on Saturday, August 16 at Sailfish Marina in Singer Island. From 5-6 p.m., scoring, handling demonstrations and Q&A sessions with members of REEF will be open to the public, and Cod and Capers will be on site preparing the catch for hungry divers and an interested public.
For those interested in taking part in the derby, registration costs $150 per team (includes four banquet and drink tickets, a derby shirt of each team member, and pair of puncture-resistant gloves); click here to register. There is a mandatory captain’s meeting on Friday, August 15 at 6:30 p.m. Teams can begin collecting fish at sunrise; all lionfish must be turned into the scoring table at 5 p.m. More than $3,500 will be awarded for the biggest and smallest catches as well as the most bagged. The prizes will be awarded at the banquet, which is scheduled immediately following the scoring process.
- The next Lionfish Derby will take place in Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park on September 13.
- For more information, visit reef.org.
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.