I want to send a huge shout out to Crooked Hammock and La Vida group for helping the Coast Watch Alliance, SEALEG, and Delaware Surf Fishing at the Lionfish World Championship during the Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day. Their donation fed all of the volunteers at this two-day event in Pensacola Florida. That’s right Delaware came to the rescue to help out our crew in the south. THANK YOU!
So when are the lionfish getting here? Have they really invaded? They are an out of control invasive species in the gulf, Caribbean and lower Atlantic. There are many groups working to eradicate lionfish, since they have no natural predators in these waters, they have literally grown out of control. There are many theories how they got into the waters. The most sound is a hurricane wiped out a wholesale facility for the aquarium trade and many lionfish made it into the water. The fact remains that all of the DNA testing points to six to eight fish that this all started from. The amount of lionfish in the waters down there is mind-boggling, especially if you know how few this all started with. Believe it or not despite the tropical conditions, they have been found to thrive as far up as North Carolina and have been found as far north as Rhode Island in the deep summer.
In the beginning of May I ventured to Florida to see my friends Brian Asher and Ashley Ridout. They had just moved, I needed a vacation, I missed them dearly, and the lionfish tournament was happening that weekend. Perfect weekend to travel to Florida see some cool stuff and events. Little did I know this trip would change a lot of things in my life. Apparently I wasn’t just there to hang out and play and as the week progressed, I realized I was really there to work, and work we did. I could spend hours about the people I met … Deanna Richburg, Captain Andy Ross, Kelly Parrett, Anna Clark, Allie ElHage, Steve Gittings, Kerry Freeland, Jeff MacGregor, Ben Lowy, Zoe Gapayao, Captain Chris Williams, Kali Spurgin, Alex Fogg, Barry Shively, Jonathan Goodrich, Moira Dobbs, Brady Hale, and I know there are a few I am missing. It was an amazing time meeting all of you.
The first day we loaded up the boats and headed offshore to check some reef areas for lionfish. We had Ben Lowy on board a photographer from the Smithsonian magazine and his assistant Zoe Gapayao. We were taking them out to get good footage of lionfish kills. You have to spear lionfish to capture them they do not hit hook and line. It was a rather “sporty” day at sea. By the time noon rolled around the three to four-foot seas were topping out at eight feet, it was time to go. Ben did get some good shots and footage. The guy is an amazing photographer, and has some insane stories about his adventures while working. It was a pleasure meeting him and working with him that weekend.
Jeff MacGregor was the reporter from the Smithsonian magazine and he was on the Niuhi Dive Charters boat and those boys stayed out in that sporty weather all day. Jeff had quite the adventure. I couldn’t help wondering when the boat left where they were going to fit everything they caught. That was the day I met the crew, and let me tell you these are some hard-core divers. These boys don’t mess around, and can tech dive down to some sick depths. I met Allie ElHage the inventor of the zookeeper, which is the collection system for lionfish after they are speared. Lionfish if not stored properly still have venomous spines that can sting you after they are dead. It is best to not have much contact with them while diving, that issue was solved by the zoo keeper’s design.
The next day we helped get set up for the Lionfish World Championship in downtown Pensacola. A really happening town if you ever get the chance to visit, it’s like the lower slower of Florida. The organizers had chefs cooking up lionfish all day and demonstrating different techniques or dishes. You can cook lionfish just about anyway you like to eat fish. I ate lionfish … sashimi, ceviche, blackened, pan seared, fried, baked, poached, and just about any other way you can imagine. It is a very buttery tasting fish and flaky white. It is delicious! Based on that, it is the reason to make this a food fish, it is good to eat and the only way to beat them is to eat them. We are the only predators for lionfish in the south.
Lionfish have to be caught by spearfishing, hook and line doesn’t work. Now there have been a few caught on hook and line but they do not readily chase bait or lures. You literally have to drop it right in front of them and when on structure that is difficult. Even when that structure is covered with lionfish. Doctor Steve Gittings is currently working on traps for lionfish. Since these fish only like to perch on structure the Doc used that to his trap’s advantage. These traps have a Fish Attraction Device (FAD) in the center that looks like the dividers in a wine box. Lionfish, attracted to structure to perch and wait for food, will occupy this FAD when it is placed in the vicinity of a reef structure. Currently he is testing large version of the model scales and so far they seem very promising. The beauty of these traps is it reduces by catch almost completely. Once you start to move this net structure that encapsulates the FAD, the other fish will just swim away before the net can fold up. As invasive as they are lionfish are not that smart, so when disturbed they literally just sit there like a bump on a log. It is one reason it is so easy to spear so many on a dive, they literally just sit there and look at you. The proverbial fish in a barrel if you will, literally. I am looking forward to see how these traps work in the wild they are just now in the early testing stages that were started this week. The Coast Watch Alliance crew is helping with the testing.
The Lionfish World Championship went well. Only about three thousand eight hundred plus fish came to the scales this year, but due to the weather that was some rather good numbers. Last year over eight thousand fish came to the scales. We spent the day talking about lionfish and watching Barry Shively give his spiel about lionfish, it was very entertaining, especially if you know Barry. A lot of people came through the championship festival to learn about and try lionfish for the first time. After the weekend wound down I said my goodbyes to those that traveled to be at the event and then explored Pensacola a little more. Then it was back to Delaware to get ready for round two and three, except this time the lionfish were heading north.
Fast forward to last week when Coast Watch Alliance and the lionfish huntresses headed to Washington DC to bring lionfish to the NOAA Fish Fry. Anna Clark, Deanna Richburg, Marissa Cordell, and Ashley Ridout were on hand at the fish fry to talk about lionfish. Zach King and I were there to assist. Every year NOAA hosts a fish fry in the commerce building in Washington DC. We brought lionfish ceviche to the event and it was a huge hit. There were people from all over the country with specialty seafoods. I haven’t eaten that much seafood in one day in my life. The event was a lot of fun and the lionfish was a favorite of the crowd. We loaded the cars up, and headed to Delaware. We had another event to introduce lionfish, and I wanted to show the ladies Delaware.
When Crooked Hammock agreed to help us in Florida with the Lionfish World Championship, it was not without a promise we made. We will bring you back about twenty-five pounds of lionfish for you to serve up in the restaurant. From there it escalated into a full-blown event to come try lionfish and learn about this tasty invasive from the huntresses themselves. You would think a day of shopping around town, and the beach would have worn them out, but the ladies were on a mission. Teach the northeast about lionfish, and they did a great job. I’m gonna miss those ladies and hope to see them soon.
So don’t panic we aren’t likely to see an infestation of lionfish in the northeast. Unless you start hitting some of the restaurants in the near distant future.
** for the record … I could spend pages telling you about this adventure.