Preserving the Environment

These Gorgeous Fish Are Invading Florida’s Coasts. One Solution? Eat Them

July 24, 2019
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These Gorgeous Fish Are Invading Florida’s Coasts. One Solution? Eat Them
People across sectors are working on solutions to curb invasive lionfish populations. Photo by Shelly Chapman/Getty Images
Their unusual beauty has made them aquarium mainstays, but in the wild, these fish can destroy ecosystems. Here’s how concerned citizens are fighting the spiny suckers.

When Alli Candelmo went diving in Little Cayman in 2015, she carried with her a spear for hunting lionfish. As the invasive species program manager at Reef Environmental Education Fund, Candelmo has been stung by the venomous fish dozens of times.

Yet she keeps on working with the lionfish, as part of a larger effort by scientists, conservationists, wildlife managers, fishers and divers to eradicate the population. 

At first glance, it seems cruel to target such an unusual animal. The lionfish’s otherworldly, spiky beauty has made it a mainstay in aquariums around the world. But the fish, which likely traveled from the Indo-Pacific to Florida’s coast through the aquarium trade in the 1980s, has no natural predators in American waters and has thus colonized them at a terrifying rate. Lionfish are still found predominantly in Florida, but also along the coast in Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, the Carolinas and the Bahamas. They’ve also been spotted as far north as Rhode Island and as far south as Brazil

A female lionfish lays around two million eggs every year, so it’s easy to understand how the fish have spread up the coast. And they have seemingly bottomless appetites: lionfish are known to eat smaller, native species — 70 reef species have been found in lionfish stomachs. Without cleaner fish and small invertebrates to eat algae that grows on coral, the coral dies off. Similar, smaller fish are food for larger fish, like snapper and grouper. The lionfish can potentially dismantle entire underwater food webs — in some areas, lionfish have reduced native fish populations by nearly 65% — and in turn, put Florida’s and other states’ commercial fishing and tourism industries at risk.  

“There is direct predation and indirect competition with native species,” Alex Fogg, the marine resource coordinator for Okaloosa County, Florida, told NationSwell.

Most experts agree that we’ve reached a point where complete eradication isn’t likely. Instead, the task at hand is keeping lionfish populations in check so they don’t irreversibly impact the ecosystem. The way to do this involves not just one solution, but a wide variety of them, including consumption, lionfish “derbies,” traps and ecotourism.

Generally, in the fishing industry, the goal is to harvest as many fish as possible while maintaining a sustainable population. “In this case, we want to capture every single one of these bastards,” Fogg said.

“Granted, we are never going to be rid of lionfish, but they’ll certainly find their place in the ecosystem and the food web and hopefully not at the expense of a lot of our commercially and recreationally important species,” Fogg said.

A lionfish being measured, en route to a dinner plate near you.Photo courtesy of REEF

Fried or Blackened?

The first solution: Eat them.

Lionfish are popping up on menus next to your fried grouper sandwiches and glazed salmon entrees. It’s a white fish similar to hog snapper or grouper. The spines are venomous, but once they are removed, the meat of the fish is delicious, fans say.

Over the last decade, public awareness around the invasive species has grown, and that’s created a market for lionfish. Whole Foods Market and Publix now purchase and sell the fish. Local restaurants across Florida serve it up in ceviche, blackened on a hoagie and rolled up in sushi. 

But the key is creating a higher demand outside of Florida, where consumers are often willing to pay a premium price for fish, said Rick O’Connor, the Escambia County extension agent at Florida Sea Grant. O’Connor suggests, no matter where you are, to ask your favorite seafood restaurant if they serve lionfish. If they keep hearing that demand, they might meet it. 

However, in many places, the demand is already there. Fishing lionfish hasn’t created full-time jobs, but it has created a supplemental income for plenty of divers and fishers. 

Generally, in the fishing industry, the goal is to harvest as many fish as possible while maintaining a sustainable population. “In this case, we want to capture every single one of these bastards,” Fogg said. 

If fishers reach a point where there are too few lionfish to hunt, then they will adapt. “I think a lot of them, and myself included, are [thinking] take advantage of it while it’s there,” he said. 

And people are. Currently, diving is the only method of capturing lionfish, which requires a lot of work. So researchers and fishers are looking at new ways to catch the fish.

“There’s a very high demand, and there’s certainly plenty of fish to meet that demand,” Fogg said. “But there’s not enough efficiency to remove enough fish to satisfy that demand.”

To Catch a Lionfish

Enter the lionfish trap. To meet the demand from the market, and to curb populations, researchers have created a lionfish-specific trap.“Traps are something that could potentially bring a whole lot more fish to the market,” Fogg said.

The goal of the trap is to minimize bycatch, a term referring to species caught unintentionally in traps, while maximizing lionfish entrapment. Another factor is making sure that if a fisher loses the buoy attached to the trap, the trap doesn’t continue to ghostfish, which is when an abandoned trap or net continues to catch and kill.

And so far, the trap’s been successful, said Fogg.

Bycatch is extremely low, and the way the trap is designed, the fish aren’t trapped until it’s pulled up from the water, eliminating the possibility of ghostfishing, said Fogg, who previously worked on trap research with Harris Holden, a graduate research fellow at the University of Florida. (Currently, this research is lead by Steve Gittings, a science coordinator for NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program.)

Researchers are also working on undersea robots: one that finds, stuns and captures lionfish and another that vacuums them up.

Either way, the goal is to get them out of the water and onto our dinner plates.

Divers showcase their haul after a lionfish derby.Photo courtesy of REEF

Lionfish Festivities

Lionfish derbies are one of the most successful lionfish removal strategies. Scuba divers compete to catch and remove as many lionfish they can in a single weekend in a specific location.

Two to four divers gather at a lionfish-infested location and spear lionfish from sunrise to sunset. At the end of the weekend, the fish are hauled to shore, counted and measured. Teams win prizes amounting in thousands of dollars for bringing back the most, the biggest and the smallest lionfish.

The first derby started in 2009 in the Bahamas and has since expanded across Florida’s coast. Candelmo has helped host the derbies for the past year. Throughout the last decade, REEF has supported the removal of close to 40,000 lionfish. 

The derbies serve a dual purpose. “The hope is to get a decent number of lionfish off the reefs but also educate anyone who still doesn’t know much about them,” Candelmo told NationSwell.  

Over time, derbies have transformed into full-fledged lionfish festivals, where organizations provide educational materials, restaurants prepare lionfish tastings and musicians entertain attendees. “It’s always good to see the energy there and feed off of it,” Candelmo said. “You can see a very tangible impact.”

Studies have shown that lionfish derbies have been very successful at lowering populations and increasing native populations. One study, led by Stephanie Green, a marine biologist at the University of Alberta, showed that between 2012 and 2014, lionfish derbies reduced lionfish densities by 52%. It also stated that these annual events suppressed lionfish populations enough to prevent a decline in native species.

“We’ve definitely seen declines throughout the region, not just in Florida,” Candelmo said. “Everywhere that has had some sort of culling pressure has seen noticeable declines.”

Candelmo pointed out that the only downside to derbies is that they target shallower populations and not deeper populations (but traps are a solution to balance that out, she said).

“The good thing about the derbies as well is it leads to a really nice interaction between fishers and community members and managers and scientists,” Candelmo said.

Lionfish hunting is an increasingly popular ecotourism activity along Florida’s coast.Photo by Rodrigo Friscione/Getty Images

Vacationing With Lionfish

The appeal of hunting lionfish paired with helping the environment has created small sectors of ecotourism. People are traveling across the country to sail on dive boats and spear the fish. Dive shops have seen such an increased interest, that many devote boats and tours to specifically hunt lionfish. 

“Word has gotten out, so people across the country are calling our local diver charters and they want to go shoot their own lionfish,” O’Connor said. 

So if you’re off to your next vacation, think about heading to a place where you can also have a positive impact on the ecosystem.

There isn’t a single solution that will eradicate lionfish in our waters. Instead, it will take a group effort of eating, hunting and trapping to preserve our native fish and ecosystems.

“Everyone kind of has the same goal, all the fisherman, all the managers, all the scientists are aiming to reduce the population,” Candelmo said. “And that’s rare.”

More: This Sustainable ‘Farm of the Future’ Is Changing How Food Is Grown

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