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Lionfish Pervade Waters Off Florida's Coasts

A recently caught lionfish
Kevin Lollar
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

  Saturday is "Lionfish Awareness and Removal Day" in Florida. Lionfish are an invasive species off Florida's coasts. People in southwest Florida are studying the fish's impact and others are helping to keep the invasive species' population under control. 

Sometime in the 1980s, a boat coming somewhere from the Indo-Pacific had lionfish onboard.  That's how they ended up in the waters off Florida where they don't belong. They’re white with red stripes, and have eighteen hypodermic-like needle-sharp venomous spines on their fins. They're the kind of fish you see in aquariums.

They’re pretty fish. But, as Florida Gulf Coast University marine biologist Mike Parsons said, their impact on the waters off  Florida’s coasts, where they’re not supposed to be, has been anything but pretty.

“In terms of marine invasive species, this is probably one of the major ones that have had an impact on the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico," said Parsons. "This is probably the biggest impact we’ve seen locally.”

And, Parsons said, they’re really good at breeding.

“A female can basically spawn 20,000 eggs every two or three days. And so a single female can spawn 2 million eggs a year," he said.

Parsons also said lionfish are more productive when it’s warmer. And in recent years those high levels of production remain constant year round.

Underwater videographer Kevin Lollar usually records himself spearing the fish. It’s one of the only ways to catch them. You cannot hook-line-sinker them or drift net them.

He catches lionfish so Emma DeRoy, a marine invasion biologist from Canada, can study them at FGCU’s marine lab, Vester Field Station, near Bonita Beach.

She got a few from the refrigerator and talked about her research.

“These guys, I’ve just been dissecting to take a look at their internal anatomy," DeRoy said. "It’s really astounding to know how voracious the appetites of lionfish are.”

Dead lionfish from the refrigerator at FGCU's Vester Field Station. The contents of their stomachs will be examined.
Credit Quincy J. Walters / WGCU News
The Florida Channel
Dead lionfish from the refrigerator at FGCU's Vester Field Station. The contents of their stomachs will be examined.

In addition to their high production rates, lionfish are near the top of the marine food chain. They eat anything and everything. 

“Lionfish are notorious overeaters," DeRoy said. "So they’re kinda gorging themselves on prey.”

They eat a lot of things humans like to eat; shrimp, crab, grouper, snapper. And that’s not good, because there are less of those critters for us to eat and most importantly lionfish offset the marine ecosystem. They can create somewhat of an ecological desert wherever they go.

Chef Laura Owens, who heads the kitchen at Cj’s By the Bay on Marco Island, said the best way—the most delicious way—to keep the lionfish population down is to eat them.

She’s even contributed to a cookbookdedicated to lionfish.

“Lionfish have an amazingly delicious diet. They eat all the things we like to eat," Owens said. "Because they have that diet, in turn, the lionfish are very very tasty. The flesh is almost sweet in flavor.”  

And she said there’s no shortage of ways to cook lionfish. It’s just a matter of taste.

“It can be sautéed. It can be fried. Grilling can be a little challenging because of the thinness of the fillet. But it can take multiple cooking techniques,” Owens said. 

Today, lionfish is on the menu at Shangri-La’s restaurant in Bonita Springs. Chef Pyro Rodriguez is preparing it  a few different ways.

And not to worry. Chefs take off the sharp venomous spines before the fish gets to your table.

Lionfish as food
Credit Quincy J. Walters / WGCU News
The Florida Channel
Lionfish as food

“I created a bundle on the plate of carrots and cauliflower," Rodriguez said, pointing to his culinary creation. "And the other plate, what I did is was added some nice wild organic rice. Mix it in with parsley, shallots."

There’s lionfish ceviche in a martini glass. There’s a whole baked lionfish on a bed of greens.

“I’m kind of a purist. I like to just salt and pepper it and sear it," said Rodriguez. "My second favorite is the ceviche. That just takes me home. The Dominican Republic is where my family grew up.”

When it’s done. I give it a try. Here’s my layman’s assessment: really good. It tastes, I guess, a little more flavorful than mahi. I guess more exciting. But that could be more psychological because it’s a lionfish.

FGCU marine biologist Mike Parsons, said it’s a pretty tasty fish.

But at $12 a pound, lionfish isn't something most people can eat on a day-to-day basis.

Parsons  said there’s no shortage of things to study about them.

“One great study would be if you constantly remove lionfish from some artificial reefs and leave them in other artificial reefs. Can you compare the environments with or without lionfish?," he said. "And what kind of a sense on how fish numbers change, how diversity changes.”

Parsons said it’s impossible to eradicate the invasive species, but marine biologists can study their behaviors to potentially learn to mitigate the damage they cause.

Kevin Lollar, Emma DeRoy and crew from the Vester Field Station head to the Florida Keys next week to catch more lionfish.

Recreational and commercial fishermen can help get rid of the nuisance and be rewarded for hunting lionfish by participating in the state's Lionfish Challenge. It lasts from Saturday until Labor Day.

Copyright 2020 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Quincy Walters is a reporter and backup host for WGCU.