The sun shone down on me as I set up my booth at the Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day in Pensacola, Florida. Though I was there to talk about the Emerald Coast’s artificial reef and Gulf to Table program, the day definitely revolved around the invasive species that has taken the Florida coast by storm.
Lionfish are native to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, where they have natural predators that keep their numbers at bay. In 1985, the first recorded lionfish was spotted off the coast of Florida’s Dania Beach. Since then they have spread up the Atlantic coast to North Carolina, as well as into the Gulf of Mexico.
Although lionfish are beautiful, the problem with this species is twofold: 1) They eat native species and outcompete others for prey, which reduces the health of the reef as a whole; 2) They are prolific breeders. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, “Lionfish have a unique way of spawning. Females release two gelatinous egg masses of about 12,000 to 15,000 eggs each. Lionfish can spawn every four days in warmer climates.” Due to their breeding cycles and lack of natural predators, we are now facing a serious population problem.
The festival quickly filled with people. Booths were set up in semi-circles, offering crafts, information and diving gear. Offshore, divers were busy spearing the fish as part of an all-day tournament. The message was not one of despair, but of hope: We can make a difference in the proliferation of lionfish.
Lionfish are rarely caught using line, but are easily speared during dive trips. Though they have venomous spines, their flesh is delicious. One solution to the overpopulation problem is to cultivate a demand for lionfish in restaurants and on private tables across the state of Florida.
As the festival continued, local chefs prepared lionfish fillets to give out to the many visitors. They highlighted the diversity of cooking methods by serving blackened lionfish, lionfish croquettes and many other lionfish-based dishes. I watched people going to and from the serving stations, and I consistently heard the same refrain: “This is good.”
Those festival-goers aren’t the only ones who think so. In a Huffington Post article, one restaurant manager commented, “It’s deadly, but it’s one of most delicious fish you’ll ever eat.”
Though this solution is simple, it could also be very effective. Restaurants along the coast of Florida are already known for their abundance of seafood. By providing a market for lionfish, divers will have a greater incentive to seek out this species. Their catch will not only reduce the lionfish population, but also create jobs and support the local food economy.
Throughout the festival, I marveled at how the community was coming together for a common cause. In addition to the chefs, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission staff, Sea Grant agents, nonprofits, diving entities and private citizens were all enthusiastic about sharing information, lionfish spearing tips and plans for the future.
Festivals like these are important. Alex Fogg, a fisheries biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, says, “Not only do divers get offshore to remove as many lionfish as they can, but thousands of people hear about the event and attend to see what these lionfish are all about. Raising awareness and educating the public goes a long way to combatting invasive species such as the lionfish.”
I doubt that lionfish will ever be completely eradicated, but with the efforts of people and organizations around the state, their ill effects could be contained.