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lionfish

The lionfish invasion stretches from Florida to the Carolinas–so far.

Photo from Shutterstock.

They are both beauty and beast, and they have added “major nuisance” to their résumé. Hailing from the Indo-Pacific and Red Sea region, lionfish (Pterois volitans) have invaded Western Hemisphere waters and are having a profoundly harmful ecological impact.

First, the backstory: Released aquarium lionfish first hit South Florida reefs in modest numbers in the mid-’80s. Fast-forward about three decades and these voracious predators have blanketed natural and manmade hard-bottom sites from upper South America throughout the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico and north to the Carolinas.

With an expansive shoreline and vast reef systems, Florida probably has seen some of the heaviest infestations—up to 200 adult lions per acre. “They move onto a reef, eat everything on it, and move on to another reef,” says lionfish specialist Amanda Nalley, of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). “Lionfish compete for forage with economically important species such as grouper and snapper.”

It’s nearly impossible to get rid of lionfish—they’re like holiday guests who overstay their welcome, clean out your fridge, and leave wet towels on the bathroom floor. Their venomous spines dissuade natural predation. And given favorable conditions, female lionfish can spawn every four days and release up to 30,000 eggs each cycle, which means loads of little lions.

Moreover, the parasites, localized diseases, and predators that keep lionfish numbers in check back home don’t exist in Western Hemisphere waters. So they pretty much do as they please. Wherever they roam, their story is one of destruction.

Emerging Fishery?
If there’s any silver lining here, it’s the potential for new hook-and-line opportunities with a species that’s sure to impress in photos and on the dinner plate (see “Eat Me!,” below). At this point, lions are mostly incidental catches for recreational and commercial anglers seeking more desirable reef fish. However, fishermen are catching on and learning how to successfully target lions.

“Unlike many other species, they’re not roaming around the structure, so you really have to get the bait close to them to elicit a strike,” says Georgia DNR director A.G. “Spud” Woodward. “They seem to stake out a territory and wait for the food to come to them.”

A double-dropper (“chicken”) rig with live baitfish or shrimp hooked through the tail will take lionfish, although Florida Panhandle anglers report catches on diamond jigs as well. North Carolina bottom-fishing guru Anthony Ng prefers to drop cut menhaden or live pinfish on wrecks.

However you fish for lions, the FWC provides a double thumbs-up. Spearing, rod-and-reel, handheld nets—all get the green light in Florida waters.

“FWC encourages people to remove lionfish from Florida waters whenever they have the opportunity,” Nalley says.

cookbook

Eat Me!
Although lionfish come with a “handle with care” label, their mild-tasting fillets provide fine table fare. You just need to learn how to properly clean them.

The FWC offers lionfish-cleaning instructions at myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/​­recreational/​lionfish. Nalley stresses caution when handling lionfish, as even dead ones can be dangerous. Unlike a viper’s hollow fangs, the lion’s dorsal, anal, and pelvic spines carry venom glands in external grooves. That means a carelessly handled fish can still get you long after it has expired.

Nalley explains that lionfish venom is heat-neutralized, so wounds should be washed in hot water and medically treated as quickly as possible. Cold, ice-chest temperatures actually help preserve the venom. The Lionfish Cookbook ($16.95 at reef.org) has many tasty recipes.

Photo by Justin Appenzeller