Episode 20: Eat the Invaders - Lionfish

This is Eat The Invaders - our occasional segment where we take a bite out of invasive species populations. On the menu today, one of the scariest, most voracious and intractable invaders out there: the lionfish.

After much discussion, the team over here at Outside/In has decided that lionfish look like a tropical fish, crossed with a peacock, crossed with a zebra, crossed with a set of Scottish bagpipes. They are flashy fish. It’s really no surprise that people with fancy aquariums like to show off by putting lionfish in them.

And really, once there were aquariums full of lionfish all over the country, it’s also no surprise that the fish got out. The mythical tale is that the current lionfish invasion began in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew rolled through Florida and smashed up an aquarium in Biscayne Bay. This story persists, even though the fish were actually first seen off the coast of Miami years before, and the biologist who suggested that theory has since discounted it.

It’s much more likely that this lionfish invasion started when disgruntled aquarium owners purchased a lionfish, discovered that the fish had a voracious appetite for their other favorite fish in the tank, and opted to dump their new purchase into the ocean.

Once there were enough free fish to find each other and breed, the stage was set for one of the most epic invasions ever observed.

The fish are a gape limited predator, meaning they will try to eat anything they can swallow. They are also suction feeding fish, meaning when they open their mouths, water rushes inside, “so the lionfish basically turns into the death star and it has this tractor beam. That’s how bad it is,” explains Rachel Bowman, a lionfish spearfisher from the Florida Keys. Lionfish feed on small reef fish that are a huge part of the ocean food chain, and one study in the Bahamas found that in just two years their arrival led to a 65% decline in the quantity of local fish.

Like many invasives, Lionfish are also prolific breeders. One female can lay 30 million eggs in a single year. Put those two things together—voracious appetite, and the ability to multiply exponentially—and you’ve got a spiny, bag-pipey, marine disaster.

Oh, and did I mention they are venomous? “I don’t have kids, but a friend of mine who has a son has told me that it’s right up there, it’s right up there with childbirth,” says Rachel, “It feels like your bones are expanding from the inside out.”

Luckily, they have one weakness we humans love to exploit: every fish yields two tasty fillets.

Lionfish meat has been compared to hogfish which is a cross between lobster and shrimp, grouper, snapper, and any number of things, but I would say that as a New Englander with a not terribly refined palate for such things, the fish tasted like any number of flaky white fish that you can get at the grocery store.

And speaking of the seafood counter, Whole Foods became the first grocery chain to offer the fish in its Florida stores this spring.

Now, you can find a smattering of articles out there with splashy titles like: “Why eating invasive species is a bad idea, or “Eating Lionfish: effective conservation or a cure worse than the disease.

As far as I can tell, the primary knock against the eating of lionfish is that it’s simply not an effective way to combat the invasion. And it may be true that no matter how many fish we spear, more will simply take their fallen comrade's place. I mean, 30 million fish eggs per female lionfish? Seriously, how do you compete with that?

We cooked the lionfish two ways: baked in butter, lemon, shallots, and white wine; and Spicy Grilled style. The first preparation was adapted from this basic recipe for cooking white fish. The second was adapted from a Rick Bayless recipe, with instructions below. 

Rachel says on a good day, she’ll spear 120 pounds in a day. And when she’s been diving on the same reef for a few days, she says they do start to get harder to find, but after just a month or two of not being patrolled, reefs fill back up with the fish. And even then, spearfishers are only helping at the depths they can reach by diving in scuba gear. “I’ve got a brother in law that’s a commercial lobster trapper, and he pulls up traps from four, five, six hundred feet and they’re full of lionfish,” she says.

But, to the critics, Rachel points out every person who picks lionfish off a menu, is a diner who isn’t eating something elsegrouper, or snapper, tasty fish which have a history of being over-eaten. And besides, what’s the alternative? Do nothing?

“You know what, it’s a hell of a lot better than sitting on the couch and saying you can’t put a dent in that population. I’m doing something,” she says, “And those people that sit there and say, well you’re not going to be able to make a difference. No, no one has ever made a difference by sitting there and saying that, have they?”

Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown & Logan Shannon with help from Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, and Jimmy Gutierrez.

Special thanks this week to the REEF Environmental Education Foundation for helping us to find Rachel, and to Norman’s Lionfish for over-nighting some freshly caught—and conveniently de-spined—lionfish to us.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

This week’s episode featured tracks from Blue Dot Sessions and David Szesztay. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.