We are in the midst of an aquatic invasion. The extravagantly gorgeous lionfish is attempting to conquer the coastal waters of Florida. Depending on your perspective, it is either an ecological disaster in the making, or a wonderfully delicious bounty waiting to be harvested.
Historically, the native range for lionfish was the warm marine waters of the South Pacific and Indian Oceans. In these locations, this dazzling tropical fish, with its attractive red and white stripes and magnificent array of spiny fins, was a reliable food source. In our neck of the woods, and owing to its spectacular appearance, the lionfish has been a popular species featured in saltwater aquariums.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), lionfish have been sighted in Florida’s coastal waters since 1985. It’s rumored that Hurricane Andrew is to blame. As the story goes, its destructive winds ravaged the coastal communities in South Florida back in 1992, and a shattered aquarium containing lionfish found its way into our warm waters. Whether this be truth or lore, a breeding population of lionfish made it into our watershed.
With ideal living conditions and an absence of natural predators thanks to it’s venomous spines, this uninvited species has thrived, multiplied and can be found in massive numbers lurking in coral and artificial reefs. Today, populations that started in modest numbers along the east coast in South Florida have spread dramatically northward into North Carolina, as well as into the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean.
Being an unintended inhabitant, and displaying a voracious appetite for a large number of ecologically and economically beneficial species of fish, lionfish represent tremendous potential for extinctions and significant habitat changes. While not yet reaching catastrophic proportions, the rapid and widespread invasion of lionfish in multiple waterways and continental coastlines cannot be ignored. Conservationists and spearfishing enthusiasts alike have responded, launching a variety of campaigns to thwart their escalating numbers.
From a local conservation perspective, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) provides an assortment of educational, regulatory and recreational resources available to the public to help in the cause. Aside from updates on research and conservation endeavors readily available online, there are the Lionfish Removal Days, Spearfishing Derbies and festivals to mobilize the public in the fight.
“If you want to help overcome lionfish infestation, one of the best things you can do is to participate in one of the Spearfishing Derbies or tournaments,” says Amanda Nalley, Public Information Specialist for the FWC.
To get started, there’s the Reef Rangers Lionfish Control Program that coordinates divers, allowing them to see where lionfish removals are taking place, where reefs have been cleaned, and works to identify coastal reefs where infestations have not yet been eradicated.
If you have a competitive streak, check out the derbies that are organized throughout the state. Most are single day events, awarding cash and gift prizes to teams and individuals for the largest lionfish by length, the most lionfish by number, and the greatest by combined weight.
In Jacksonville, the derby of choice is the Northeast Florida Lionfish Blast. Operating from Browns Creek Fish Camp just inside the mouth of the St. Johns River, and hosted by fish camp owners, Donny and Rachel Trauthwein, divers and spearfishing enthusiasts help preserve the offshore reefs in our region. The primary goal of the event, aside from fun, is to see who can remove the largest number of lionfish. Cash and gift prizes awards are all welcomed incentives.
The 2016 Northeast Florida Lionfish Blast held in May was responsible for removing 3,478 lionfish from local waters. Patrick McCarver won the General Tournament award for 587 fish cleared in two days, as well as the Blaster award for 751 fish removed during the month-long tournament. When asked about the lionfish infestation, Donny says, “While there are conservation principles involved, this tournament is all about removal. We want them all gone. That’s why we call this derby the ‘Blast.’”
Donny isn’t just an expert in catching lionfish; he also knows how to turn them into something utterly delicious. While the cleaning is done very carefully since getting stuck by one of those venomous spines could spoil an otherwise wonderful day, freshly harvested and properly handled flesh is clean, white, firm and flavorful.
At this year’s festival, where prizes are awarded with a party of great food and good music, participants were treated to lionfish ceviche and fried lionfish along with Donny’s famous black beans and rice. Coupled with a few cold beers, this hot and sunny day dockside with friends and family could not have been any better.
Donny runs a food truck appropriately named: South in Your Mouth. Whether it’s barbecue, chili, or tacos, he is the culinary tour-de-force behind a deliciously southern-style menu and what he lightheartedly refers to as “erotica for your taste buds.” If you catch this truck around town, while lionfish is not published as a regular item on the menu, it can’t hurt to ask.
Lionfish is comparable to hogfish, snapper, or flounder. It has high levels of heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids, is lower in saturated fat, and considered healthier than many other seafood options. While there are a growing number of chefs and restaurateurs who have placed lionfish on menus, fillets may be available as a special order from your local fish market. There is even a lionfish cookbook and a surprisingly large number of recipes available online. The more you ask, and as a greater number of food venues feature lionfish as a viable food source, the faster the reefs can be stripped of this unwanted species.
The bottom line is that, whether you’re a conservationist, accomplished scuba diver, spearfishing enthusiast or foodie looking for an exotic new experience, lionfish is an enjoyable and delicious way to help preserve our local reefs and maintain a healthy watershed.
Donny and Rachel Trauthwein are the husband and wife team that organizes the Northeast Florida Lionfish Blast based out of Browns Creek Fish Camp.
Each spring, Browns Fish Camp hosts a festival to celebrate the winners of the Northeast Florida Lionfish Blast that is open to the public to enjoy.
On the menu at this year’s festival was lionfish ceviche, fried lionfish, hushpuppies and other classic southern sides.
The Northeast Florida 2016 Lionfish Blast ended in May and divers removed close to 3,500 lionfish from First Coast Waters.
The barbs on a lionfish are poisonous, so it is best left to an expert fisherman to clean.
20 fresh limes, divided
2 pounds of fresh lionfish fillets, cut into 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch chunks
1 large red bell pepper, 1/4-inch dice
1 large green bell pepper, 1/4-inch dice
2 large tomatoes, 1/4-inch dice
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups cilantro, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon coriander
salt and pepper, to taste
tortilla chips, for serving
In a large glass bowl, combine the juice of 19 limes with the lionfish, making sure there is enough juice to cover all of the fish. Cover and refrigerate for four to six hours, stirring once every hour, until the fish has turned completely white and begins to flake apart.
In a separate bowl combine the bell peppers, tomatoes, onion, cilantro, garlic, coriander, salt, and pepper. Add the juice of the remaining lime to this mixture, stir well, cover and refrigerate.
Drain the juice from lionfish after the fish has marinated to prevent overcooking, then combine with the vegetable mixture. Add salt and pepper, to taste, if needed. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Serve with tortilla chips. Enjoy!
• Make sure your fish fillets have been properly deboned and cleaned
• Keep the fish and vegetable mixture separate until one hour before service to prevent colors from bleeding into the fish
• Once the fish has “cooked,” be sure to drain thoroughly to prevent an overwhelming lime flavor
• Keep everything cold
Lionfish are reef dwellers and caught by scuba divers.
For those who want to learn more about lionfish, or would like to attend or participate in one of the many lionfish festivals around Florida, check out these websites: