Secondhand Lions: Catch, Keep, Eat
Standing under a salty morning sky are a hundred or so predators, armed for battle.
They mill around on two legs, trading strategies and smiles on a dock that's bordered on both sides by miles of beach. Scientists watch – NOAA, USGS, the University researchers, the private foundation people.
These are lion hunters, preparing for the day's chase.
Some are armed with spears and bags, others with rod and reel. Some bear SCUBA gear, others board boats bristling with graphite poles, deep-water reels mounted to each of them.
And they're off! It's a lionfish derby, and the granddaddy of them all is the Green Turtle Key Derby on Abaco in the Bahamas. Unlike bass and walleye competitions where catch-and-release is at the core of the sport, these are harvest events with a purpose.
Later in the day the hunters will return with as many as 2,000 lionfish and the prizes will be awarded. A $2,000 grand prize for the most lions, trophies for the biggest and the smallest, and lots of good-natured ribbing. As the lions come in, they'll be filleted and prepared on the spot for the tasting.
"The Lionfish is actually a wonderful fish – especially for divers and people who like to watch fish," says Lad Akins of REEF. "It's beautiful, ornate, and has a lot of character. It's especially popular in the aquarium trade – tens of thousands are imported every year to for private aquariums."
The trouble is, these imports from the Indo-Pacific turned up in waters off the coast of Florida back in the 1980s. Someone didn't have the heart to kill their pet lionfish, so they set it free where it didn't belong. Others did the same.
For a decade or more, the population of lionfish was confined to south Florida, but in the past 5 years, the populations just exploded (see animation below). Today there are millions of them, all along the Eastern Seaboard and stretching throughout the Caribbean. They're found in water from inches to hundreds of feet deep, and they're gobbling up native fish.
"For lionfish, the impact is different than with some other invasive species," says Akins. "Some people get up in arms when they hear something's there that doesn't belong. Lionfish are worse because they're having a predacious impact on marine ecosystems."
In other words, they eat a lot.
"And nothing tends to want to eat them because of their great venomous defenses," says Akins.
Those "great venomous defenses" he's talking about are long spines – 13 of them along the dorsal alone – that stab out in every direction. They're sharper than a catfish spine and pack a painful punch if you happen to get poked with one.
So what's the problem – just another fish in the sea, right?
"It appears that their impact would be very broad – not just a targeted impact on one or two things, but across the whole system, challenging ecologically, economically, and recreationally important species," says Akins.
That's scientist-guy speak for "they eat everything in sight."
If it's half their size or smaller, they can – and will – eat it. And since nothing eats them – we're their only native predator – their populations are exploding.
"At a number of sites in the Bahamas, lionfish depleted the average prey-fish community by 65% over just a couple of years – some sites were as much as 95%," warns Akins. "That's huge."
Other research suggests that they're impacting commercial lobster fisheries, and they're a threat to commercial fisheries like snapper and grouper. They also eat the fish that clean the reef and pick parasites off other fish.
If the lion is the king of the jungle, the lionfish is the marauder of the sea.
Our best defense? Eat 'em to beat 'em.
On the plate, the lionfish is the jam. Prepare them like any other fish - the venom is only in the spine itself – you don't need to do anything special when cooking them. They offer lightly flavored, delicate meat. Cook it spine-in or fillet them – cooking them denatures the venom. There's no danger of the venom contaminating the meat.
They're voracious predators, so catching them isn't real tough. You'd fish for them the same way you'd fish for deep-drop snapper – multiple hooks on a deep-drop rig, baiting with cut bait like squid. It's not uncommon to catch a few lions on one drop, and anywhere you find structure, you'll find them.
"We're not hearing as many reports of success with shallow-water fishing," says Akins, "but quite a few from deep water habitat."
So if you catch one, how do you keep from getting stung? Well, puncture-resistant gloves help, but if you do get stung, immersion of the sting in non-scalding hot water treats the sting. On a boat, exhaust water from the engine or a wet towel or T-shirt across the engine block can work.
The derbies don't really provide overall population control, but they're good outreach and they set things into motion – teaching anglers and divers to catch and remove every single lionfish. To target them intentionally.
"Local control can be effective at maintaining low lionfish populations and minimizing their impacts," urges Akins. "Region-wide eradication is not on the table, but targeting specific populations can be effective."
Do this. If you're where the lions are, gear up and prey upon them. Order The Lionfish Cookbook that came out last year, and try every single one of the 45 great lionfish recipes.
Get in on one of the derbies here.
Check out this BBC Video from Philippe Cousteau and see lionfish doing some hunting of their own.
We are lion hunters. We are stewards.
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about the author
Recycled Fish is the national non-profit organization of "anglers living a Lifestyle of Stewardship both on and off the water, because Our Lifestyle Runs Downstream."