Kill. Capture. Cook. That’s what you should do to lionfish; a poisonous fish that is a carnivorous invasive species growing in booming numbers in Southern Florida.
Previous removal attempts involved consistent and widespread removal by both citizens and conservation workers. However, a recent trend in Florida for lowering the invasive species population involves something a little more simple: Eat more lionfish.
Similar in taste to the hogfish, lionfish are also a white, flaky fish. Like tilapia, lionfish have a mild taste, said Tommy Thompson, executive director of Florida Outdoors Writers Association and food columnist for Florida Sportsman magazine.
Pan-searing, grilling and frying are simple ways to cook lionfish.
“They make great fish tacos and can easily be complemented by an herb and mushroom cream sauce, lemon juice or pico de gallo,” Thompson said.
The Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) also released a cookbook, “The Lionfish Cookbook”, featuring recipes devoted wholly to preparing and cooking the invasive species.
For Florida, lionfish consume native fish at an alarming rate, creating a local problem. They not only target ecologically and recreationally important fish but fish people like to eat, according to Martha Klitzkie, director of operations for REEF.
While eating lionfish seems like an easy fix, it’s not that simple.
“Despite the fact that they’re good to eat, they’re not easy to catch,” Thompson said.
Hunting and preparing lionfish is very complicated due to their 18 venomous spines. Lionfish are most commonly captured using a spear and hand-held nets. When hunting, scuba divers should be considerate not to damage the surrounding coral reefs. Divers should also consider their own safety when catching and filleting lionfish and use chain-linked gloves when scaling the fish, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“If you’re shooting a lionfish, you’re going to get stung,” warns Lloyd Bailey, owner of Lloyd Bailey’s Scuba Watersports in Gainesville.
Although some people react better than others to the venomous stings of lionfish, it is still very painful. In extreme cases, some divers have been transported to the hospital in order to receive medical care.
Some dive shops, such as the one Bailey owns, sell tools to decrease the likelihood of being stung. At his store, Bailey sells “zoo keepers”, which are tools used to put lionfish in a tube to keep the spines away from the diver once captured.
In order to increase public interest in hunting these creatures, REEF holds lionfish derbies annually. The 2014 summer lionfish derby hunting locations included Ft. Lauderdale, Palm Beach, Key Largo and Green Turtle Cay in the Bahamas.
Since 2009 when the lionfish derbies began, over 12,000 lionfish have been removed from Florida’s ecosystems, according to REEF.
Because an individual female lionfish can release around two million eggs a year, there are still plenty of lionfish waiting to be captured, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Lionfish are commonly found in shallow waters, deep waters, mangroves, coral reefs and other diverse environments, Klitzkie said. Thus, Floridians will be hard pressed to ever remove them, she said.
However, she also pointed out that eliminating this problem relies heavily on help from the communities they are affecting.
“We won’t ever be able to get rid of them,” Klitzkie said. “The good news is, a local control can make a difference.”
Do your duty. Kill. Capture. Cook.