Lionfish The Other White Meat

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Lionfish painting at the Guy Harvey headquarters and store in Fort Lauderdale. Not only are lionfish admired for their beauty in the aquarium trade, they make for great art. It is a beautiful fish, but just as destructive. Now they are also making it in the culinary arts. Lionfish is becoming a very popular dish.

Lionfish are not only good to eat but an invasive species.  I went to Florida and visited the South East American Lionfish Eradication Group  (SEALEG)  to learn more about  lionfish eradication.  I am very familiar  with the aquarium trade so this is an interesting subject for me in that aspect, as well as an angler.  I used to own a saltwater aquarium store and sold these fish.

You don’t need a license to hunt and kill lionfish in Florida, it is an invasive species.

Years ago the theory is people were throwing their aquarium fish into the ocean.  I have some personal experience with my saltwater aquarium store in the late nineties, maintain aquariums, and grow corals.  People would bring large lionfish back to the stores and many times there wasn’t anywhere to keep them and they would turn the fish away.  Some of these fish were taken to the ocean and dropped in the water.  They didn’t want to kill the fish, but could not afford a large enough system to keep the fish.  They figured they were helping the creature by releasing it, into an ocean, not knowing it has zero predators and could become a nuisance to that area.   Lionfish are from the Indo-pacific ocean area.  The Atlantic ocean and Gulf do not have any predators for lionfish.  Even in the Pacific ocean the lionfish have few predators, except a bacteria that sterilize the male, which helps keep the populations in check.  That would be millions of years of evolution by nature with population control.  Then the lionfish are dumped into an ocean that has not “evolved” to keep them in check and they proliferate.  On a scale that is unbelievable.  This massive infestation or invasion is destroying the reefs, and affecting the game fish.  They are even being found off the coast of North Carolina in deep water wreck sites.


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Lionfish on ice at Whole Foods Market in Florida

Now if you are thinking like I do, then how did a few fish dumped into the ocean find each other and start such a huge population?  Good question, there are other theories how this infestation started.  One theory is the fish were brought over in ballast tanks and took time to get a foothold in the reef areas.  Another theory is wholesale facilities for the aquarium trade that flooded during storms ,released a large amount of fish at one time.  That theory in my opinion is the most solid, because to have more fish it takes two fish.  I could see a group from a wholesale facility pairing up in the ocean and spawning.  The genetic tests done on these fish suggest that about eight fish started this infestation and it is their offspring that continued on from there.  I find it highly unlikely that a lionfish dumped in the ocean would manage to find another lionfish dumped in a different part of that ocean, but then again there is always another fish in the sea.  Despite what happened and how, now the issue at hand is how do you get rid of these fish that are destroying the reefs and affecting some game fish populations.

Lionfish in a collection container held by Zack King. The container has a flap on the inside. The fish is inserted nto the tube and the flap pulls it off the spear. Makes it much safer collecting these fish.
Lionfish in a collection container held by Zack King. The container has a flap on the inside. The fish on the spear is inserted into the tube and the flap pulls it off the spear. Makes it much safer collecting these fish. The tubes can hold a decent amount of fish depending on size.

Lionfish hunt all day long, that is all they do when they are not making more lionfish, and they do that a lot as well.  Coral reefs are sensitive to changes in the environment, light conditions, and all kinds of factors.  However, one thing they cannot do for themselves is clean their surroundings.  That is where the small reef creatures come into play.  Little cleaner shrimp, crabs, snails, hermit crabs, and small fish like blennies.  These “reef dwellers” live only on the coral reefs and maintain them all day by eating algae and detritus off the rocks.  If these animals are all eaten by  lionfish or a large percentage of them, then the reef chokes with algae growth and dies.  The reef dwellers are the caretakers of the coral reefs, and when they are gone, eventually there is nothing left.  Several  lionfish will eat everything in a reef area in no time.  Some of the reefs are covered in hundreds of lionfish.  Perched under ledges waiting for that meal to turn the corner and eating it with lightening speed.  One of the things that thrill aquarium enthusiasts is watching these fish eat.  The fish will push forward and back so fast you can barely see it take the fish.  It is an efficient killing machine.  Many species of game fish young live around these reef areas and fall victim to lionfish.  That changes the numbers of fish available as adults for the game fish community.  Lionfish were never part of the equation in the Atlantic, they should not be here and are creating a huge unnatural dent in all reef dwelling species.

There are fishing derby’s dedicated to the eradication of lionfish.  It was lionfish awareness day the weekend we were in Florida

Lionfish filets
Lionfish filets are about 30% of the fish, or the yield.

Lionfish are venomous, not to be confused with poisonous.  Venom has to be injected, but is harmless if eaten or swallowed.  Lionfish have  needle-sharp dorsal, pelvic and anal fins that have venom sacks.  When they stab a spine into another predator for defense it shoots a venom into the other fish.  This venom is  a protein-based, neuromuscular toxin and can be very painful for humans and deadly to smaller creatures.  So after hearing this you are probably thinking why on earth would I eat this fish.  Because it is harmless and tasty, especially in Ceviche.  Great sautéed any way you like and even raw.  The venom is not in the meat, and since it is protein based, will break down with heat. The toxin itself will breakdown at three hundred and fifty degrees, but that temperature is not necessary to cook them.  You do have to take care cleaning lionfish and remove the spines.  A lionfish sting is not deadly to a healthy human being, but envenomation will cause an immense amount of pain and swelling.  An allergic reaction is possible and like any reaction, anaphylactic shock could occur, which is no different than a bee sting reaction.

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Lionfish are used for tropical decor all of the time. Kate King and Ashley Ridout with the pose

So now that we know we can eat lionfish, that there is a huge supply of them, and they need to be removed from the area.  How do we go about getting them to the table efficiently and cost effectively.  Brian Asher and I ran into a Whole Foods Market customer and he asked why does an invasive species normally cost ten ninety-nine a pound, they were on sale that day.  Brian said .. “ You have to go and physically collect these fish with a spear gun, you can’t hook and line catch, or net them.  It is a collection cost.”  I found it funny that these fish were displayed next to a thirty dollar a pound tuna.  I think I would go for the  lionfish at that price.  If it is based on collection costs, I know what we went through to collect several pounds of lionfish, it should cost more than that.

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My daily view of the SEALEG crew

The South East American Lionfish Eradication Group (SEALEG) is a nonprofit organization founded in the State of Delaware right here in good ole Sussex County, by  Zack King, Brian Asher, Ashley Ridout, Kate King, and Perry Townsend.  They as divers have seen this problem first hand for years and decided to do something about it.    Their mission is to eradicate lionfish from the Atlantic ecosystem, in a way that is both environmentally friendly and economically viable.   “The South East American Lionfish Eradication Group (SEALEG) was founded to bring the dive community, marine conservation organizations, universities, commercial fishermen, premium restaurants, and premium food retailers together to combat invasive lionfish (Pterois volitans and Pterois miles) in America’s sensitive coastal waters.”  

Kill shot spearing a lionfish

Lionfish Ceviche, sealeg, florida, invasive species
Lionfish Ceviche

I accompanied the SEALEG crew  to Florida on a few dive trips to look for lionfish.  I’m not certified to dive, I wish I could.  Especially from my experience in the aquarium industry growing corals in my aquariums.  Unfortunately for me I can’t scuba dive, long story short I can’t keep my mask on after twenty-five feet.  My tear ducts are connected to my sinuses  so I leak air under pressure and the mask pops off as soon as I breathe.  When underwater I can blow bubbles out of the corner of my eyes, if you really want some imagery. So I stayed up top and was assigned the task of chief bubble watcher, helping keep an eye on the team below.  I could see sixty feet to the bottom, very clear water.  I looked at the videos they shot while down there and you can see lionfish all over the place, getting to them is another issue.


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Lionfish about to be filleted

The crew speared some decent sized lionfish, they dove for two days on different sites.  We met a great local dive captain on our second day.    Captain Davey Katz running the Aqua Therapy dive boat for Diver’s Choice .  SEALEG explained their mission to the captain and he took them to some places he knew would hold lion fish.  “Some areas are more infested than others.  You clean an area out and three months later they are back.  They are a nuisance and need to be gone, they eat everything!”  The crew accomplished some nice dives with the help of Captain Davey and his knowledge of the area reefs.  It was weird seeing a fish I used to sell for forty to one hundred dollars in the aquarium shop on the end of a spear.  However it was even better tasting on the end of my fork.   The lionfish ceviche and some filets sauteed in butter were delicious.  I would definitely eat this all of the time, just have to make it readily available.  Florida has lionfish for sale around the entire state.  It is gaining popularity.   Save a reef eat a lionfish, the other white meat … became the mantra for the weekend.

Fish On!!

Rich King





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