A predatory animal lurks within the coastal waters of Florida and efforts to eliminate this vicious creature are done through launching fishing competitions and cook-offs.
The lionfish is an aquatic animal that lives in the Indo-Pacific and other parts of the Atlantic Ocean. It is considered an invasive species which devastates the Caribbean Sea where it preys on almost 80 percent of fish in its coral reefs. Lionfish have a ferocious appetite which they fill their stomachs that can expand up to 30 times their own size. No one really knows for sure how the lionfish problem began. Some attribute it to lionfish arriving in the ballast of ships, while a second opinion points at fish aficionados dumping their aquariums into the sea.
As far as this problem of lion invasion exists, some people have been diving in to make a profit out of it.
Rachel Lynn Bowman is a commercial spearfisher of lionfish who regularly harvests along a 40-mile reef tract in the Florida Keys. She’s been selling lionfish to Whole Foods since 2016.
According to Bowman, complete eradication of this fish isn’t a possibility. There have efforts to manage the lionfish population to areas where native fish breed and raise its young.
Dr. Stephanie Green has published studies showing a resurgence of local fish population in the Bahamas where lionfish are regularly culled.
“A week ago, three friends and I speared 1,115 lionfish out of Apalachicola, Florida,” said Bowman. “We know one female lionfish can release 2 million eggs per year, and she can do that for about 13 years. If half of the fish we speared were female, then we prevented the release of almost 15 billion eggs.
Lionfish are reef fish, which means they can’t be caught via hook or net. This makes them ideal game for divers wielding spear guns, although fishing for lionfish can be tricky. If a diver is pricked by one of the spines their hand will swell. In addition to the pros, scuba diving enthusiasts visiting the Caribbean are joining in the hunt.
Ryan Chadwick, a restaurateur had served this fish on the menu including developing his own shipping service that soon grew into a wholesale lionfish business.
“I spent two years in the Bahamas in Exuma and developed an attachment to the destination,” said Ryan Chadwick. “When I returned to Exuma eight years later, everyone was talking about lionfish and the problems it was causing to the environment. At that time, I was opening a Caribbean restaurant in New York City and I thought it would be cool to serve this invasive fish on the menu since no one else was selling it.”
“My most memorable meal of lionfish was a sushi preparation,” said Chadwick. “Although, you can serve lionfish any number of ways: ceviche, pan-seared with butter or garlic, fried, or flavored with spices like curry, or Jamaican jerk.”
Chadwick also added that this problem isn’t going away far too soon. Unfortunately, this fish is a part of the environment. They have no known predators and after they wipe out the local population of fish, they begin to cannibalize each other.
In a bid to reduce the numbers of lionfish, some destinations in the Caribbean are holding special lionfish hunting events and derbies.
This coming October 3-6, the island of Grenada will be holding its 2nd Annual Dive Fest. The four-day event has a lot of components, including a flotilla of dive boats departing from Morne Rouge Bay for a lionfish hunt. After a day on the water, freshly culled lionfish are served up at Coconut Beach Restaurant on the island’s Grand Anse Beach.
Sandals Resorts International’s non-profit Sandals Foundation educates local fisherman in catching and selling lionfish. Guests can also join special two-day lionfish catch-and-dive excursions, with all profits going to the Sandals Foundation. At times, these lionfish hunts culminate in a chef-prepared luncheon.
In Curacao, divers can join lionfish hunts organized by dive operators. Do not fret because even non-divers visiting Curacao can still do their bit by chowing down on delicious lionfish at such restaurants as Seaside Terrace in Willemstad, Sol Food in Westpunt, and Pirate Bay in Piscadera.
In the Cayman Islands, the Cayman United Lionfish League (CULL) organizes lionfish culling tournaments culminating in an island-wide lionfish feast after the hunt.
A marine delicacy from fish derby
Divers caught 509 lionfish in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in a contest aimed at controlling the venomous, elaborately decorated non-native fish that have infested its coastal waters. Twenty-four divers competed in the 2018 Fort Lauderdale Lionfish Derby, one of a series of events being held around the state.
Lionfish have established a second home in Florida’s warm, sunny environment. Native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, they have consumed and pestered native fish, breeding so quickly that they would be virtually impossible to eradicate.
But lionfish derbies such as the one held in Fort Lauderdale can control them in particular areas, if held often enough, scientists say.
“The removal effort has been helping locally,” said Alli Candelmo, invasive species coordinator for Reef Environmental Education Foundation, which organized the event. “But you really have to continue to remove them.”
The winning team, called “Pain Killer,” won the tournament, catching 206 lionfish. It also won the prize for hooking in the largest lionfish, a monster more than 16 inches long. The teams were competing for $4,500 in prizes.
Hosted by the restaurant 15th Street Fisheries, the event was sponsored by Whole Foods Market, which donated more than $50,000 for the events. This was the seventh derby held at 15th Street Fisheries. The last one resulted in a catch of 440 lionfish.
Since these fishes are edible, environmentalists have been trying to generate interest in them as a 'food fish'. These were used to make ceviche on the spot, taken as specimens for research or turned over for sale at Whole Foods.
Lionfish derbies are scheduled Aug. 5 in Palm Beach, Aug. 12 in Jacksonville and Sept. 16 in Key Largo.
Lionfish were first reported off Dania Beach in 1985, and have been suspected to arrived in Florida waters from home aquariums. The state banned the import of lionfish in 2014, but by then it was too late.
Jacksonville Beach on August 12th will be hosting the annual Lionfish festival giving us a chance to taste expertly prepared, freshly caught lionfish from the derby.
This invasive species that decimates our reefs has no natural predators, and it affects the health of local fishermen by removing them through spearfishing. They also taste delicious, like a combination of a mild white fish and lobster.
The REEF’s Jacksonville Lionfish Derby, part of REEF’s 2018 Summer Lionfish Derby Series is presented by Whole Foods Market. Divers and snorkelers will compete to bring in the most lionfish, the largest lionfish, and the smallest lionfish, each vying for $6,500 in cash prizes. All teams are eligible for a $1,000 Golden Fish Award raffle, randomly chosen from teams that check in at the end of the tournament.
Invasive lionfish are voracious predators that threaten marine ecosystems. Over 160 species of native fish and invertebrates have been found in lionfish stomachs. Defended from predators by 18 venomous spines, lionfish rule the reefs and are able to reproduce as fast as they can. Though lionfish may seem unstoppable, local control is proving to be highly successful and divers can significantly reduce local populations with regular removals, such as REEF’s Jacksonville Derby.
The public is encouraged to attend the festival, which features free lionfish tastings, scoring of lionfish from the derby, educational demonstrations, kid’s crafts, lionfish culinary competition, live musical performances, and more
With all these continuous drive to address the problem with Lionfish, it may be hopefully possible to maintain ecological balance in Florida’s marine ecosystem once again.