Invasive, destructive species threatens Florida reefs, marine life
Eleven years ago, Alex Fogg saw his first lionfish in the wild. Immediately, he knew what to do to the feathery-looking brown-and-white fish adorned with a swath of spines that was drifting near a reef.
“I killed it,” he says with pride. “We’d heard about lionfish in my classes at the University of South Carolina, but I had only seen them in photos.
“In 2008, there was very little research or information about them, except that they were an invasive species with the potential to upset the ecological balance of marine life and reefs.”
Alex has made lionfish his life’s work, writing a string of research papers about everything from the reproductive life history of the destructive fish to lionfish parasites and the rise of lionfish derbies in the Gulf of Mexico.
“For a long time, their prey didn’t recognize them as predators,” says Alex, marine resource coordinator for Okaloosa County, “but their superior life history characteristics and explosive population growth has wreaked havoc with native fish species, recreational and commercial fishing, marine life and recreational diving.”
Native to the warm waters of the South Pacific and Indian Ocean, lionfish were first reported offshore Broward County, Florida, in 1985. They are now well established in the western Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.
Lionfish have invaded waters as far north as Cape Hatteras. A small number have been spotted in waters off Massachusetts.
“Lionfish are the perfect invader,” says Kali Spurgin, lionfish outreach coordinator for the division of marine fisheries management of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “They are highly reproductive, have huge appetites and are adaptable to a wide range of environments. That’s why it is so important to continue the work of removing them aggressively.”
Lionfish are eaten by various fish, but not enough to keep the growing population under control.
With the ability to produce as many as 30,000 eggs every four days, lionfish have quickly spread, overtaking reefs and feeding on virtually anything that crosses their paths.
“Lionfish are not picky at all about what they eat,” says Kali, who works with FWC’s formal programs to reduce the lionfish population. “They can consume prey that’s half their body length. When we’ve examined their stomach contents, we’ve found stone crabs, blue crabs, juvenile grouper and snapper, and other economically and ecologically important species.”
Alex calls them garbage disposals.
“They will eat anything and everything that comes into their path, as long as it fits into their mouth,” he says. “They are generally lazy and will not aggressively seek food. They wait around reefs and eat fish that swim past them.”
Derbies, Roundups and Rodeos
Each year between March and September, communities, governments and nonprofit groups organize nearly two dozen lionfish rodeos, roundups and derbies to help remove tens of thousands of invasive lionfish from Florida waters.
Divers and snorkelers win big prize money by spearing or catching lionfish in hand nets.
“This year, we were able to offer $10,000 to the dive team that brought in the most lionfish, and $5,000 each for the largest and the smallest lionfish,” Alex says. “Admittedly, our cash payout is higher than most, but considering the costs of fuel for a boat, air for tanks, chartering a boat, transportation to the derbies and other expenses, any money is a help. But this is not a way to get rich quick.”
Five years ago, the Florida Legislature designated the first Sunday after Mother’s Day as Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day, encouraging communities to host lionfish derbies that weekend.
This year, the event was headquartered in Destin. The Emerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau hosted the Emerald Coast Open to coincide with the festival. Divers from around the world brought in more than 14,000 lionfish during the two-day event.
The festival included educational booths, culinary demonstrations, artists and conservation organizations. The group also promoted Lionfish Restaurant Week, with 10 restaurants serving lionfish appetizers and entrees.
“Our goal is to educate people about lionfish,” Alex says. “From capturing and killing as many lionfish as possible to letting people know how tasty they are, the festival and tournament are helping get our messages out. It’s contributing to reducing the number of invasive lionfish in our waters.”
During Martin County’s ninth annual Lionfish Roundup in June, 37 divers collected 394 lionfish.
“Each year, our participation and catch rate has increased,” says Jessica Garland, coastal management coordinator for the public works department of Martin County in Stuart. “In the past nine years, divers have brought in 3,694 of them—the biggest measuring 15 inches when laid out flat, and the smallest the size of a quarter.”
During the Martin County event, area restaurants serve lionfish on their menus. Some say it tastes like hogfish or snapper.
“People enjoy it prepared as sushi, ceviche, fried or broiled,” Alex says. “It would be ideal if we could create a way to harvest them on a larger scale. It would give the native species (other fish) a break to rebuild their numbers and provide a novelty seafood to the marketplace.”
Experts emphasize that contact with lionfish is not lethal to humans.
“I’ve not heard of a human being killed by lionfish,” Jessica says. “I’ve been stabbed numerous times and it really, really hurts, especially if the fish is still alive. Sometimes people’s hands will swell to the size of a softball or cantaloupe, but the swelling will go down.”
She says reactions depend on each person’s tolerance for the venom, and whether the fish is alive, freshly killed or has been on ice for a while.
Treatment includes applying hot water to the wound, taking an antihistamine or visiting an urgent-care facility if the condition worsens.
“Many people wear heavy gardening gloves, if they don’t have SCUBA gloves,” Jessica says. “People who clean them to eat know to clip off the spines first to protect themselves from being stung.”
Providing Education and More
For a decade, Reef Environmental Education Foundation—a nonprofit marine conservation organization based in Key Largo—has sponsored lionfish derbies and education around Florida.
In March, REEF hosted the seventh annual Winter Lionfish Derby in Key Largo. In the one-day event, 10 teams of 34 divers removed 620 invasive lionfish. In late June, 31 participants removed 417 lionfish at the eighth annual Fort Lauderdale Lionfish Derby.
The season finale, REEF’s 10th annual Upper Keys Lionfish Derby and Festival, is September 13-15. It features both sea and land events—from divers and snorkelers hunting their prey from boats to shore-side demonstrations, music, tastings and educational demonstrations.
Since 2009, more than 40,000 lionfish have been removed through derbies sponsored and sanctioned by REEF.
“In addition to providing an incentive for the removal of large numbers of lionfish and increasing public awareness, derbies offer an open and optimistic platform for divers, fishers, managers and scientists to work together and learn from each other,” says Alli Candelmo, invasive species program manager with REEF. “This collaboration is vital to improving management and control of this invasive species.”
REEF also presents invasive species programs and marine education training at its headquarters. Its work is supported in part by grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Foundation, through the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida, Whole Foods Market and others. FWC also provides financial assistance to groups hosting tournaments.
In the past five years, lionfish derbies and other programs in Florida have resulted in the removal of nearly 530,000 lionfish, according to the FWC.
“While this figure is impressive, it is really only a fraction of the lionfish in our waters,” Kali says. “As a department, we are encouraging even more communities and groups to host tournaments.”
FWC offers a number of ways communities can become involved in lionfish education and awareness. Groups can book a “Become the Predator” workshop. Teachers can introduce the invasive species through “Lionfish: Classroom Invasion,” which includes an on-site dissection with a presentation.
The FWC initiated a Lionfish Challenge annual campaign that runs from Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day in mid-May through Labor Day, with cash prizes donated by sponsors for people who collect the largest and smallest lionfish.
The rules and forms are at FWCReefRangers.com. Participants photograph their catch and submit the photos to the website to win prizes.
“For people who regularly dive, this is another way to reduce the lionfish population,” Kali says.
Facts About Lionfish
- Lionfish (Pterois volitans and Pterois miles) are invasive species that can damage reef systems.
- Voracious predators, lionfish eat native fish and crustaceans, including ecologically and economically important species such as grunts, snapper, Nassau grouper, parrotfish and cleaner shrimp.
- Equipped with venomous dorsal, ventral and anal spines that deter predators, the sting can cause pain to humans. However, lionfish are not deadly to humans. In fact, their meat is edible and tasty.
- Popular with aquarium enthusiasts around the world, lionfish likely were introduced to the Atlantic via the aquarium trade.
- Capable of reproducing year-round, lionfish reach sexual maturity at a relatively young age. Embryos and larvae break apart from the egg mass within two to three days and settle into their habitat area within a month of spawning.
For more information about lionfish and initiatives to eradicate them, visit reef.org.
A Tasty Treat for Diners
Described as tender, flaky and mild, lionfish has become a hit with diners from the Panhandle to the Keys.
“It’s in my top three best-tasting fish,” says Parker Destin, a sixth-generation Floridian who grew up in a commercial fishing family.
His great-great-great-grandfather Leonard founded the first fish camp in East Pass in the 1830s. The area later became Destin.
“Fishing is in my blood,” Parker says. “My grandfather and father, both named Dewey, were commercial fishermen until about 15 years ago. I learned to fish with them.”
Once Parker graduated from the University of Tampa with a degree in business, he returned to his hometown and convinced his father to open a restaurant.
“I’d learned the restaurant business in Tampa while I was in college, so it made good sense for the family business to shift to restaurants,” says Parker, an attorney specializing in commercial fishing law.
They opened Dewey Destin’s in 2001, setting up picnic tables and a food truck at the old commercial docks in Destin. Eventually, they put up a small restaurant there, called Dewey Destin’s Bayside. Business was good, so in 2009 they opened Dewey Destin’s Harborside nearby. Their newest one opened in Navarre.
In 2013, Parker met Alex Fogg, a graduate student who is now marine resource coordinator with Okaloosa County.
“I’d been doing a lot of diving and spearfishing and noticed that the lionfish population had just exploded,” Parker says. “I met Alex, who was doing all this research about how invasive lionfish have become. We here in the Panhandle, including the Emerald Coast Reef Association, put our heads together with some local guys and put on a derby to get rid of as many as we could. Along the way, we found out how good they tasted, so I started offering them in our restaurants.”
The idea of eating lionfish became so popular restaurants in the Panhandle include Lionfish Restaurant Week as part of the annual Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament.
This year, 10 restaurants featured lionfish entrees on different nights, quickly selling out of the white fish that some say tastes like hogfish or trigger fish.
“We’ve been offering lionfish whenever we can,” Parker says. “It’s been remarkable how well it’s been received. The biggest challenge is getting enough to make it a regular offering. When we get 100 pounds and prepare them, they sell out in about an hour and a half.”
Parker buys them whole, using kitchen shears to cut off the spines.
“We give them a haircut—there are only 13 spines on the top and several more on the bottom—then filet them,” Parker explains. “Once we remove the skin, we have two nice white fillets that we can blacken or fry. Sometimes we pan fry them with a pecan coating or offer lionfish ceviche. It’s wildly popular.”
Parker emphasizes that lionfish is perfectly safe to eat.
“The sting of the spines when the fish are alive can be very painful, but once they’re dead you just need to be careful how you handle them,” he says. “The meat itself is so delicious that they’re worth the trouble it takes to clean them.”
Currently, lionfish are only caught through spearfishing or using nets.
“If we could figure out how to fish them on a larger scale, it would solve so many problems,” Parker says. “But when you look at it, even with the proliferation and damage the lionfish do to the native species, there’s a little bit of a silver lining: At least lionfish tastes good.”