We're Not Lion: This Caribbean Invasive Fish is Delish!

  • 01 of 04

    Save a Reef, Eat a Lionfish

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    ••• Lionfish. Photo © Jayhem/CC by 2.0

    When it comes to the name “lionfish,” you don't expect a cute and cuddly pet-friend, nor your run-of-the-mill “Nemo” type – and nor should you. The lionfish, a highly venomous and spiny ocean-dweller, lives up to its name as a hunter and devourer, chowing down on all types of small fish and organisms across the big blue. However, while a creature should perhaps never be faulted for enthusiastic eating habits, these fish take down something else far more critical to the global ecosystem: coral reefs. 

    Lionfish are natives to the Indo-Pacific region but have made their way into familiar waters in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and other parts of the Atlantic Ocean. In these waters, lionfish threaten the native fish and the natural environment as they compete with local organisms for a limited number of resources in an already biologically depleted coastal zone.

    This demand for resources has led to a decline in nutrients and life-sustaining microorganisms in the coral reefs, thereby...MORE destroying parts of these reefs at an accelerated pace. Not to mention that lionfish eat almost every other kind of fish there is in the Caribbean waters, meaning that as the lionfish population increases, the population of native fish will continue to decrease.

    Lionfish have no known natural predators in the Caribbean, leaving the job of limiting their growth solely to human interference. So what can you, as a Caribbean traveler, do to help defeat this ravenous, reef-destroying menace? It's simple: you can hunt 'em, or you can eat 'em.

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  • 02 of 04

    Lionfish: Venomous Doesn't Mean Poisonous!

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    ••• Lionfish stalking the reef. Photo © Rob/CC by 2.0

    In the past few decades, lionfish have invaded Caribbean waters at an even more rapid pace due to changing ocean currents, thereby forcing Caribbean communities to tackle the issue head (or, perhaps more accurately, fin) -on. Environmental groups have assembled teams of divers to hunt the lionfish, and have been relatively successful in removing small portions of the lionfish population at a time. 

    Perhaps most interestingly, however, has been the developing call for lionfish in fish markets. Lionfish, contrary to common myth, are very much edible; in fact, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has launched an "Eat Lionfish" campaign

    The debate about whether or not they can be eaten come from a similar question about whether they are venomous or poisonous. To clarify, lionfish are venomous; the latter would make them inedible, while the former means you can eat them -- just stay away from their spikes!

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  • 03 of 04

    Submerged Safari: Hunting the Lionfish in the Caribbean

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    ••• Spearhunting lionfish. Photo © Florida Fish and Wildlife/CC by 2.0

    When pondering lionfish for your nightly dinner, there are plenty of sites that will tell you to hunt lionfish on your own when exploring the Caribbean waters. Go for it, but there are a few things to bear in mind. 

    For starters, lionfish are highly venomous. However, you only run the risk of being injected with their toxins if you are pricked by one of their spikes. Lesson learned: stay away from lionfish spikes. 

    Second, the lionfish cannot be reeled in like your typical fish – they simply won’t take the bait. So, if you intend on fishing for your own dinner, remember that the best way to hunt a lionfish is by either diving down to their level and scooping them up in a net, or by going Cast Away-style and spearing them.

    The good news is, if you go the way of the spear, lionfish are relatively easy to stake, especially when they are swimming in shallow waters. From Bonaire to the Grenadines, lionfish hunts are now being organized.

    Once you have caught your first lionfish, you have...MORE officially joined the ranks of “invasivores,” a new term for people who make eating invasive species trendy, and by doing so, help better the world while they fill their stomachs. Good job, invasivores, you hipster fishers, you!

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  • 04 of 04

    Eating the Invaders: How to Prepare and Serve Lionfish

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    ••• Lionfish served with herbed mayo. Photo © UNC-TV

    If you come to find that hunting lionfish just simply isn’t in the cards for you, fear not. With the influx of lionfish to the Caribbean waters, local fishermen (and women) have been hunting these creatures more and more, lining them up in food stalls right next to other local treats and eats – guava, cacao, cane sugar, plantains – you name it. Lionfish also is starting to show up in Caribbean restaurants as well as U.S. fish markets, at prices ranging at up to $28 per pound. As hunting increases and supplies rise, those prices should come down, however.

    Which leaves us, the eaters, the invasivores – the few, the proud – with the the most important question of all: how the heck am I supposed to eat lionfish? 

    Lionfish, despite all of the hubbub, actually makes for a pretty mellow meal. Like many whitefish, it is flaky, has a somewhat buttery texture once cooked, and tastes great with a little butter and citrus. Throw some butter in a pan, coat your lionfish fillet in some panko crumbs or...MORE flour, and fry away. Once it's cooked, add a little lime or lemon and plate that bad boy over a steaming hot pile of rice. 

    There are also plenty of recipes out there for making more sophisticated dishes that will have your dinner guests roaring with anticipation, such as Reef.org's Lionfish Cookbook. Best of all, lionfish have high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, so they're a healthy choice as well as an environmentally friendly one.

    With the presence of lionfish in the Caribbean becoming impossible to overlook, more and more efforts are being made to decrease the lionfish population and save the local populations of fish, coral, and other native organisms. Tourists can do their part too by hunting lionfish or by purchasing lionfish at local markets to keep the fishermen including these spiny intruders as part of their daily catch. 

    When it comes to lionfish, there seems to only be one word of advice left to deliver: if you can’t beat em, eat em!