We’ve all seen Lionfish before—in aquariums tanks, at the zoo, in the pages of National Geographic. This funny-looking fish is hard to miss.
But most folks don’t realize that they’re a major threat to our aquatic ecosystem here on the Gulf Coast.
This invasive species, which has grown rapidly in Gulf waters over the past few years, feeds off the same prey as popular Gulf fish like Red Snapper and Grouper. And, unfortunately, they’re big eaters.
“Lionfish don’t have any predators, and they eat a lot,” said Alex Fogg, lead biologist with the Gulf Coast Lionfish Coalition and a graduate student at the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast. “Whatever they can fit in their mouth, they will eat.”
“What an average fish would eat, they have 20 to 30 times that in their stomach at any given time,” echoed Chris Sherrill, executive chef at the Flora-Bama Yacht Club. “They will eat and devastate juvenile reef species and recreational fish species, but what they’re really doing is destroying the baitfish population, and then in turn, that pushes other species off the reefs.”
The story of Lionfish on the Gulf Coast is a fascinating one, and any supporters of Gulf seafood will want to get involved.
How Did They Get Here?
Lionfish are natives of the Indian and Pacific Oceans—in other words, about as far from the Gulf of Mexico as you can get.
So how did they come to find a home on the Gulf Coast?
According to Fogg, Lionfish were first spotted in the Atlantic Ocean in the mid-80s, then again in 1992.
While there were theories that Hurricane Andrew washed these fish from local aquarium tanks, the prevailing theory is that a handful of fish owners simply got tired of them—either because they were getting too big or they were eating their other fish—and they turned them loose.
“A lot of times, when you let fish go or just dump them in your backyard, they won’t survive,” said Fogg. “But these Lionfish seem to have no problem surviving that dumping and making it out into our waters. The literature says that it was anywhere from eight to 12 individuals who started this entire problem.”
These Lionfish began spreading to the Gulf of Mexico about four years ago, and their escalating presence has demanded the attention of Alabama’s seafood industry in recent years.
What is Being Done to Help?
The Gulf Coast Lionfish Coalition (GCLC) was formed less than a year ago, bringing together concerned parties from throughout the Gulf seafood industry.
“We decided that it would be kind of cool to put together an organization that deals with Lionfish,” said Fogg. “With biology, tourism around the region, the restaurants, and the people—really bringing together all those different aspects.”
According to Sherrill, several different methods are in the works to help extract Lionfish from the Gulf, including traps, cages, and other mechanisms.
But for now, the most popular technique is the old-fashioned way—hunting them down one by one.
That’s why the GCLC is hosting a series of Lionfish tournaments. Once a month throughout the summer, the GCLC (in partnership with the Alabama Gulf Coast Area Chamber of Commerce and the Perdido Key Chamber of Commerce) will be hosting one-day shootouts where divers will gather and help remove Lionfish from the Gulf by hunting them down with spears. The next event will take place June 28.
These divers will compete for different prizes (including cash prizes), and Fogg will be on hand with other biologists to collect data on the fish that are brought in, after which the bigger specimens will end up right where we want them: on local restaurant menus.
Are Lionfish Good to Eat?
Lionfish may look funny, and their venomous spines may dissuade many Gulf seafood fans. But if you’re willing to try it, you’re in for a treat.
“It’s one of the best eating fish I’ve ever had,” said Sherrill, who serves Lionfish on the Flora-Bama Yach Club menu whenever he has it in stock. “It tastes a lot like Flounder.”
Recipes vary for Lionfish preparation, but as Sherrill notes, you can cook ‘em just about any way you like ‘em.
“They lend themselves to every way you can cook a fish,” said Sherrill. “We do several different presentations from ceviche to a sashimi-style, frying them whole, grilling or blackening the filets, or frying the filets. For anybody that is willing to try it, it’s one of the best ceviche-style fishes that you could ever use.”
For those concerned with its safety (especially with a raw presentation), Sherrill notes that Lionfish have been found to be among the safest reef fish on the market.
And those spines? They’re nothing to worry about.
While their sting is venomous, it isn’t fatal (there haven’t been any recorded fatalities from Lionfish venom), and there is no poison whatsoever in the meat of the Lionfish.
“We don’t even remove the spines when we clean them anymore,” said Sherrill. “We used to for safety, but now we’ve got it down to such a simple science that we just leave the spines on and everything.”
What Can I Do to Help?
You don’t have to be a marine biologist or an experienced diver to help the GCLC in their mission to remove Lionfish from Gulf waters.
A GCLC membership costs just $25, which includes a t-shirt and discounts from local businesses. The membership fees go toward further research as well as events like the shoot-out tournaments.
“We always need help,” said Fogg. “That’s the biggest thing with this organization—we need manpower.”
And, of course, if you’re at restaurants that serve Lionfish—such as the Flora-Bama Yacht Club in Perdido Key or Shipp’s Harbour Grill in Orange Beach—make sure to give it a try.
The removal of Lionfish from Gulf waters is one of the most important issues facing Alabama’s Gulf seafood industry today, and every measure taken to spread the word is a tremendous help.
“We’ve estimated that every lionfish we kill, we save somewhere around a thousand fish, whether that’s baitfish or reef fish or things of that sort,” said Sherrill.
For more information about the GCLC and upcoming events, visit their website.