Taming the Lionfish
Under a sky the color of old gym socks, the Deep Obsession nuzzles into its berth at Lake Park Harbor Marina just before 4 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, its passengers and crew snug in the afterglow of fellowship and their full day’s exploration of the reef just east of The Breakers. The cloudburst that pounded the coast, an hour earlier, bypassed them. Not that a soaking rain could have dampened their spirit of adventure.
“I shot a lionfish,” says Rafi Acosta, a Cubanborn dive instructor from West Palm Beach, brandishing a thin metal spear attached to a bungeecord propellant. “Here’s my lionfish tamer.” He demonstrates, firing the mini-spear into a clump of grass. A fellow diver had aimed for two lionfish but missed them both. The boat’s captain, Brian Chouiniere, targets the toxic creatures wherever and whenever he can. One stung him last year, and he hasn’t forgotten. Or forgiven. Worst pain he’s ever felt. Worse than the stitches he got after cutting open his foot. Worse than when his appendix ruptured.
A more beautiful fish would be hard to imagine, but, as aqua-focused Floridians are learning, beauty is the beast. And, from all accounts, the beast has taken up permanent residence. So from scientific research to commercial selling, from lionfish derbies to lionfish on dinner plates, the effort to contain the invaders ranges far and wide, bringing them into the lives and futures of all of us.
Lionfish, named for their mane of needle like dorsal fins, are native to the Indian and western-Pacific Oceans, but, since the 1990s, they’ve made themselves increasingly at home offshore of the Carolinas and in Florida’s warm waters. Why here? Why now? Theories abound.
A 2003 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) blamed Hurricane Andrew, citing the destruction of a private aquarium that allowed lionfish to enter Miami’s Biscayne Bay. The aquarium, it was reported, sat on a porch overlooking the bay’s seawall. That notion has since been retracted; even before Andrew’s 1992 visit, a crab-trap fisherman in Dania caught a lionfish. One hypothesis points to ballast waters from trans-oceanic ships; another, far more likely, points to aquarium owners who jettisoned their colorful-but-aggressive tank-dwellers in the misguided belief that returning them to nature was both right and good.
However the fish might have arrived, they are unlikely to leave. Ever.
In truth, when it comes to reproduction, lionfish put rabbits to shame. For one thing, in warm enough waters, lionfish can reproduce year-round. For another, they can reproduce every four days. And each spawn, NOAA researchers say, can produce 30,000 eggs. By comparison, rabbits are slackers. They reproduce for only nine months of the year. The average litter varies from four to 12 young. In a year, then, a female rabbit can be mother, grandma and great-granny to a family of about 800. No threat to the planet.
But lionfish? They are a worry.
Yes, their red-and-white zebra-striped body and fluttery pectoral fins make them lovely to look at, but lionfish are not delightful guests. They have voracious appetites. They have no known natural predators. They reproduce like mad. It’s a bad combination.
Here’s NOAA on the subject: “Due to their population explosion and aggressive behavior, lionfish have the potential to become the most disastrous marine invasion in history by drastically reducing the abundance of coral reef fishes and leaving behind a devastated ecosystem. Dr. Mark Hixon and his team from Oregon State University with support from NOAA’s Undersea Research Program (NURP) have embarked on the first studies to measure the severity of the crisis posed by this invasive predator.”
And this, from a paper by Dr. Hixon and researcher Mark Albins: “With an eye on the future, we describe a possible ‘worst case scenario’ in which the direct and indirect effects of lionfish could combine with the impacts of preexisting stressors — especially overfishing — and cause substantial deleterious changes in coral-reef communities.”
Researchers in the Caribbean have found 50-plus species of fish in the bellies of lionfish: baby groupers and snappers, important catches for commercial fishermen, and baby parrotfish, whose taste for algae limits the overgrowth of coral-killing by algae. The scuba diving magazine “Undercurrent” cites short-term studies on Bahamian reefs that suggest lionfish “may have the capacity to reduce the recruitment of juvenile fishes to reef areas” and “could (in theory) lead to declines in Caribbean reef biodiversity, disruption of normal ecological processes, and possibly the local extinction of select species.”
Still, not every researcher is ready to sound an ecological death knell. Zack Jud, a Ph.D. candidate from Florida International University who has done extensive work around the Jupiter Inlet and the Loxahatchee River, suggests that such panicky predictions are based on studies with fairly limited scope and are, therefore, premature.
Mr. Jud began hearing about lionfish off the Carolinas’ coast several years ago. Then came talk of their presence in Florida offshore waters. Might they, he wondered, migrate into the estuaries? Doubtful, he thought, but worth exploring, so in August of 2010 he and his academic adviser, Craig Layman, donned scuba gear for a look-see. Within 10 minutes of entering the water, they spotted and captured lionfish with spear poles and hand nets.
“We would snorkel the entire shoreline of the Loxahatchee River during each day of research,” he says. “They like structures. In nature, natural habitat, they like coral reefs, or a rocky overhang or cavern. We find them a lot of times on artificial habitat. Boat racks, shopping carts, piers, dock pilings.”
Those lionfish sightings were news.
“This is the first documented intrusion of lionfish into an estuarine systems in their invasive range,” Mr. Jud wrote in a paper published in Aquatic Biology. “In total, 211 lionfish were captured in the Loxahatchee River between August 2010 and April 2011.”
The ecological significance of estuaries, he noted in the article, includes providing a habitat for “commercially, recreationally and ecologically” important species. A major decline in those species is attributable, as he wrote, to shoreline development, pollution, dam construction, dredging and, to some extent, invasive species.
The potential impact of lionfish in the estuaries?
“The honest answer is, we don’t know,” Mr. Jud says. “We don’t know yet. There are a number of scientists out there who are putting out what I call the gloomand doom mat. They want to tell you that these lionfish are going to extirpate all of our native species, that they’re going to destroy ecosystems and they’ll ruin Florida as we know it. They may, but we don’t know that yet, and my hunch is that they’re not going to do all of that.”
For one thing, he says, past experience has shown a decrease, over time, of other invasive species. Venomous cane toads, for example, invaded Dade County in great numbers in the late 1960s and early ’70s, then diminished significantly in the ’80s. Mr. Jud expects a similar population decline in lionfish over the long term.
“There have been a few studies that have shown some potentially catastrophic effects of lionfish,” he says, “but, in my opinion, some of those studies have pretty big limitations and the scope is not very broad.”
He makes it clear that he is not defending lionfish. “I wish lionfish weren’t here,” he says. “They certainly pose some sort of threat to our reefs. However, I think it’s time to look at other potential reef issues — issues that we may have some control over — because we know that lionfish are here to stay. If we devote too much attention to eradicating lionfish, there’s a danger of overlooking other threats to our reefs.”
The danger to reefs is real and growing far worse. As ecologist Roger Bradbury, a researcher at Australian National University, wrote in The New York Times last month, “Overfishing, ocean acidification and pollution are pushing coral reefs into oblivion. Each of those forces alone is fully capable of causing the global collapse of coral reefs; together, they assure it.”
So lionfish are in no way the sole culprits.
A word in their favor? Yummy.
Charter boat captain Brian Chouiniere’s wife Janine enjoys lionfish sushi. Mr. Chouiniere prefers to bread it and sauté it. The Chouinieres, both dive masters at Jim Abernathy’s Scuba Adventures in Lake Park, take out charters every day, barring inclement weather, and they see lionfish, large and small, all the time. The larger ones, they will sometimes spear and take home to filet. The smaller ones, they’ll sometimes spear and feed to moray eels in the hope that the morays might eventually develop a taste for the flashy fish. For now, though, not even a moray eel will gobble a live lionfish.
“You can tell when you see them, they don’t have a care in the world,” Mr. Chouiniere says of lionfish. “The little ones, they’ll just sit there and fan out their fins like, ‘You can’t mess with me,’ and I’m like, ‘Yes, I can.’”
If it seems that a bit of revenge is at work here, it is.
Seeing a lionfish can make Mr. Chouiniere see red — and lead him to relive his encounter with one, in February of 2011. That day was just a fun dive. It was fun until he spotted and speared a large lionfish and felt one of its dorsal fins pierce the fleshy part of his palm, just below the thumb, as he was shoving it off the spear with his knife. He surfaced immediately, his hand already ballooning in size, the pain stunning.
The boat’s captain called Janine Chouiniere to have her meet them at Singer Island’s Sailfish Marina with a thermos of boiling water and a bowl. “One of the only first-aid remedies is to get your hand into hot water,” Mr. Chouiniere says. “So I’d hold my hand in the bowl as long as I could stand it, but as soon as I took it out, I’d feel the pain again.”
Doctors at Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center administered morphine and steroids. Even so, the swelling lasted for three days and his hand ached for weeks.
So, yes, he turns the tables on them now. Targets them. Kills them. Sometimes eats them.
Jessica Zabel, whose father Steve Gyland owns Cod & Capers in Palm Beach Gardens, encourages area divers to kill lionfish — there’s no catch limit — and bring them in to sell.
“You’re down there anyway,” she tells them, “so just grab some. We’ll pay you $5 a pound. It’s money in your pocket. And it’s in your interest because they eat baby lobster and grouper and that’s your livelihood.”
Ms. Zabel compares the mild taste of lionfish to hogfish or tilapia, but she doubts they’ll achieve widespread popularity as a delicacy.
“It’s a little cost-prohibitive,” she says, seated at a table in Cod and Capers on U.S. 1 in North Palm Beach. “It’s very laborintensive and by the time you filet them, there isn’t much there. But the chef here tried it as fish fingers and it was delicious, absolutely delicious.”
A few area restaurants, from time to time, will add lionfish to their menus. Ms. Zabel cites dining rooms at The Breakers and PGA National, but says that preparation is too time-consuming to make lionfish standard fare — not to mention the wariness of diners who have heard all too many horror stories about the fish’s venomous nature. But because the only venom is in the fish’s fins, which divers clip before bringing them ashore, neither preparing nor eating lionfish is harmful to one’s health.
Ah, but here’s something that’s harmful to the health of lionfish: the second annual Lionfish Derby & Rodeo, being set for Aug. 17 and 18 held at Sailfish Marina & Resort. The marina played host, last August, to Palm Beach County’s inaugural Lionfish Derby, during which lionfish wranglers officially caught and counted a bounty of 706 of the fancy fish. Last year’s total lionfish count for derbies sponsored by Reef Educational and Environmental Foundation (REEF) in South Florida, the Keys and the Bahamas: 3,542. A lionfish tasting session followed the 2011 event, with preparation by Chef Oscar of the Singer Island Hilton, and recipe-sampling is promised once again this year.
The initial intent of lionfish derbies was to help eradicate the species, but the passage of time — combined with the fish’s tremendous reproduction rate — has shown that to be an unlikely outcome. A more significant derby impact is public awareness and education.
“We’re past the stage of being able to make a real difference, and there are so many other pressing issues that we might be able to fix or at least ameliorate,” says Mr. Jud. “How often do you see people running around and stomping on brown anoles or curly tail lizards? They’ve almost wiped out our native green anoles. Florida’s got a rich history of invasive species. The real answer now is figuring out how to do our best with the situation. We have no idea what the next invasive species will be. Make people understand, if you let your animal go it can pose a severe threat. Be aware of other avenues for disposing of an unwanted pet. The real issue is education and awareness of not introducing nonnative species.” ¦