Culinary conservation hunts predator lionfish for human consumption

On a stormy September morning, a small fleet plies the choppy waters off Pinellas County and heads out into the Gulf of Mexico. 

Dropping 100 feet below the surface, a scuba diver draws his spear and approaches a creature lurking in a dark crevice. It’s a predator capable of decimating native fish populations including grouper and snapper, and overrunning underwater reefs. But on this day, the predator is the prey for the second annual Lionfish Safari. 

Drifting cautiously closer, only a few feet separate the two hunters. The spear is cocked and aimed, while large fins spread like dragon wings, loose skin waving like pirate ship sails, amongst long venomous spikes that can put a diver in a world of hurt. Suddenly the strike happens, and the spear rips into the invasive species. The diver shoves the lionfish into a special container, careful to avoid 18 venomous spines, which in extreme cases bring nausea, vomiting and other unpleasant allergic reactions. It’s a violent encounter, killing a destructive yet beautiful fish as the only viable way to stop the invasion … for now. 

So how did a fish from the other side of the world become Florida’s most wanted invasive, hunted by underwater assassins? By being so good at being bad. Lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific, began showing up off Florida’s East Coast in the mid 1980s, likely released by aquarium owners. The importation of lionfish is now banned in Florida, but with no natural predators here, the invasive species spreads at an alarming rate along -- now found not only along the entire U.S. East Coast, but deep into the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. 

The major problem with lionfish is their voracious appetite for native species, including Florida favorites like juvenile grouper and snapper, as well as lobster eggs and just about anything else they can get their vacuum like jaws around. The fish corner their prey using their large spiky fins and with a quick snap of the jaw and inhale, they swallow their prey whole. Sometimes they even shoot a jet of water at the victim first to confuse them, sending the hapless victim straight into their open mouths. Native fish, not used to these unusual tactics, become easy prey. By competing with native species for food and eating fish that keep reefs healthy, like algae-eating parrotfish, lionfish have the potential to disrupt the whole underwater ecosystem. 

Aside from obvious environmental concerns, if unchecked, this invasion could also have devastating long-term effects on Florida’s recreational and commercial saltwater fishing, the diving and tourism industries, and the hundreds of thousands of jobs they all support. 

Battle central deploys from Florida

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Lionfish Outreach Coordinator Meaghan Faletti says, “FWC highly encourages divers and anglers to remove lionfish whenever they can. … We are really encouraging people to get involved and take action against the invasion.”

According to Faletti, female lionfish typically produce 30,000 to 40,000 eggs when they spawn (recent research suggests possibly even more) with only two to four days between spawning, so a single female can produce millions of eggs in a single year. 

Another troubling factor is that unlike most fish, lionfish spawn a toxic, gelatinous egg mass, which floats to the surface and travels ocean currents, acting both as a protector and allowing the lionfish population to spread into new areas without the adult fish ever leaving its established home.

The lionfish also can survive water temperatures down into the 50s and water with low salinity, which is very unusual for reef fish. That’s why it’s not surprising that they’ve also been spotted in Tampa Bay. One lionfish was caught by a fisherman on a kayak under the Skyway Bridge, another speared by a home owner in Apollo Beach who saw the fish in about a foot of brackish water in a canal leading into Tampa Bay, and another was caught in Old Tampa Bay at Cypress Point Park in Tampa, just north of the Howard Frankland Bridge. 

Monica Lara, professor of Marine Sciences at St. Petersburg College and VP of Reef Monitoring Inc., sums it up like this. “They have everything in place for taking over. They eat everything. Nothing eats them. Their eggs are toxic. That's why they are a big worry." 

At this point experts believe lionfish can’t be eradicated from Florida waters, but local efforts, like the Lionfish Safari, hosted by Guy Harvey Outpost on St. Pete Beach, Reef Monitoring, Inc., and the Fishing Rights Alliance can help control it. The September safari reaped 884 lionfish that were brought back to the Guy Harvey Outpost, a Tradewinds Beach Resort, and turned over to Lara, and a conveyor-belt-like procession of students, scientists and researchers of Reef Monitoring Inc., a nonprofit group consisting mainly of current and former SPC students and faculty specializing in marine research, reef site mapping, planning and analysis. The group gives budding scientists and researchers an opportunity to get field experience through activities like beach and reef cleanups, and in this case, dissecting and recording data on lionfish.

With measurements taken, stomach contents logged, and otoliths (also known as earstones) removed to determine age, the lionfish are then handed over to filet-knife wielding Florida Fish and Wildlife folks demonstrating how to negotiate the spines while cleaning the 400+ pounds of fish. Their next stop is the sizzling pans of TradeWinds chefs who serve them up as blackened or pesto-marinated samples at a free tasting tent. 

Culinary conservation — eating lionfish for a culinary cause

At the inaugural Lionfish Safari, Tradewinds Executive Chef Justin Harry made Thai fish cakes. “Everybody was telling me, this is good, this is great, but what does the fish taste like?” So he grabbed some pans and prepared some blackened and some grilled, and everyone raved, so he kept it simple again for this year’s tournament to showcase the flavor of the fish.

“It’s a semi-firm white fish, so anything you can do with a snapper, grouper, hogfish, you can do with this,’’ Harry says. “It’s versatile, any flavor you can throw at it, it adheres, and it just compliments.” 

He points out to skeptic first-time tasters that the flesh is not toxic, only the tips of the spines are venomous, and those are usually removed during preparation, unless you like your dish with a little flair. “You can actually take the spines and boil them and use them as toothpicks or garnish.”

Chef Harry is proud that he was one of the first, and one of only a few chefs in the area serving lionfish, “I’d rather be known as the company that’s out there trying to eradicate an invasive species than the guy sitting in the back saying, well, I’m thinking about it.”

Because of the lionfish’s voracious appetite, Lara says, “We joke that they butter themselves because they have all this fat, you don't even have to butter them, you just put them in the pan! The idea is that you get enough people eating them, then, the fishing pressure comes off the grouper, snapper and hogfish. We can only hope that the numbers of lionfish will get as reduced as the number of goliath grouper and other native fish. They need the pressure off, because lionfish are eating the juveniles of all these (native) fish.” 

Lara admits, “We know we can't go out and pick them (lionfish) all up, but (through) awareness, people start talking, asking where can I get it, they ask at the restaurants and the restaurants start asking the fisherman to start bringing these in instead of other stuff.”

Others came out for the sporting side of the safari. Brian Mahardy of team 2shea from Clearwater Beach won a $200 prize for smallest lionfish at only 60mm (2.4 inches), which he caught between two clamshells. Kristie Gilford of Jim’s Dive Shop in St. Petersburg speared the largest lionfish of the tournament at 390 mm (15.4 inches), netting her $200, but there was a price for victory. While shoving a really big fish into her Zookeeper containment unit, its fin stuck her thumb two or three times.

“Their spines are like hypodermic needles,” she says, “That was the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced in my life”

After a 2.5-hour boat ride, the team finally got back to the shop and heated water through a coffee pot in which she then soaked her hand. The venom is protein-based, so hot water helps ease the pain.

Despite her swollen and still painful thumb, Gilford is quick to add, “I’d do it again. … If you’re going to hunt, you gotta’ be tough.” 

Local efforts at citizen science

In 2011 there were only two tournaments on the entire Gulf Coast that included lionfish categories, and those pretty much only happened because Alex Fogg asked if he could add them to gather information to be used in research for his masters degree on Lionfish Life History at The University of Southern Mississippi. Only four fish were caught in the first tournament, but it’s grown ever since. Today there are about 40 tournaments in Florida this year alone, all collecting lionfish, and each pulling in hundreds and sometimes thousands of the invasives. Fogg continues his work now as an employee with FWC.

“Our idea, and what’s been proven through other research, is that we can control lionfish on a localized level,” says Fogg. “This is absolutely citizen science, especially when you have groups like Reef Monitoring and myself (with FWC) collecting samples from these fish that are coming in. It’s huge, the amount of information and the amount of coverage we can get in one day, it’s awesome. To get this many samples -- as a scientist, it’s our dream.”

Three other local events in Tampa Bay are helping fight lionfish. The Annual Sarasota Lionfish Derby is hosted by Mote Marine Laboratory in cooperation with the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF). The St. Pete Open, which is held annually by the St. Petersburg Underwater Club and claims the title of world’s largest spearfishing tournament, and the annual Suncoast Spearfishing Challenge in Sarasota both have lionfish categories. 

Invasive innovations tackle culinary conservation challenges

The biggest threat to divers hunting lionfish isn’t being attacked by the fish, it’s getting stuck when spearing and attempting to place lionfish into a container. The costs associated with such a labor intensive harvest, combined with an inconsistent supply, means that the price for lionfish is relatively high creating yet another hurdle to getting it on local menus. The current price at Sammy's Seafood in St. Petersburg is $6.45 per pound whole, $18 per pound for filets. Publix offers it via special order for $24.99 per pound for filets. Tampa Bay innovators are working on solutions to these challenges. 

Brian James and his wife went on a diving trip in the Florida Keys in 2013, and decided they would take a spear along in case they came across any lionfish. James says transporting and diving with the spear was nerve racking, so he began developing a device that sheaths a pole spear in a gun-shaped tubing, allowing the user to spear invasive lionfish, then retract the spear into the tubing which simultaneously removes the fish from the diver’s spear tip without getting their hands close to the venomous spines. A few months later, The Lionfish Striker was born. He now assembles the devices in Venice where he lives, and sells them at tournaments and on his website. 

James says that along with it being “a safe way to store your gun when you’re not using it for lionfish, it’s the confidence of being able to get it off your spear tip without exposing your hands to danger … cuz  getting stuck sucks.”   

That was the inspiration for Allie ElHage of Sarasota as well. “Diver Safety is the reason Zookeeper was born,” he says. ElHage was living on the island country of Curacao in 2011 when a scuba diver friend, familiar with his design experience, asked him to create something to protect divers from lionfish. “That’s literally the first time I ever heard the word lionfish,” laughs ElHage, who wasn’t even a scuba diver yet. “I asked him, what’s a lionfish?” 

He played around with a few ideas, but set the project aside until his friend prodded him again. He went to the equivalent of Home Depot on the island and grabbed whatever looked useable and threw it in the cart. “I threw 90 percent of that stuff out,” he says, but six versions later, he had one that really worked. 

The lionfish containment unit was dubbed the Zookeeper. It is a large tube with a flexible funnel that allows divers to insert a lionfish as the funnel closes around them, trapping them inside, with a special end piece that prevents the force of multiple lionfish insertions from forcing the fish back out. After testing it with local divers and instructors in Curacao that had been using contraptions ranging from mesh bags to a birdcage, he was ready to launch. He brought the idea back to Sarasota and found U.S. manufacturers to produce his designs and ship all the components back to him. “I put Zookeepers together here in Sarasota in the ‘manufacturing facility,’ aka the garage,” jokes ElHage. 

In 2013 he sold around 100 units, in 2014 around 600 and so far this year, around 2,300 Zookeeper lionfish containment units have been sold in the U.S. and internationally. ElHage plans on expanding the line of Zookeeper products and is particularly excited about a new larger, expanding version of the lionfish containment unit that can be used for commercial lionfish harvesting in deeper water. “Beyond recreation (diving) limits we have a huge problem,” EHage says, “Beyond 130 feet, there’s nobody effectively removing them yet.”

LAIR innovation — Lionfish Attracting Imitation Reef

Chris Stallings, Assistant Professor of Biological Oceanography at the University of South Florida, heads up a team called "Taking Back the Lion's Share" which hopes to create the first lionfish trap for commercial fishing applications. The team includes Sarasota chef and Indigenous restaurant owner Steve Phelps, Katie Sosa of Sammy’s Seafood in St. Petersburg, commercial fisherman Captain Rick Matthews and other members of the USF science community. 

The trap is called a "LAIR" which stands for Lionfish Attracting Imitation Reef and will mimic the type of crevice or natural habitat where lionfish take shelter, allowing them to enter the device, but not exit. 

“Our idea has a simple elegance to it, in that it can simultaneously provide economic opportunities to seafood distributors, restaurateurs and fishermen -- including those that have been displaced or are struggling in other fisheries – while promoting greater ocean health by removing a voracious, invasive predator that directly eats and outcompetes native species,” says Stallings. 

The idea landed them $25,000 for development as a finalist in The Gulf Coast Innovation Challenge. The team recently manufactured 75 traps they are currently fishing off the Gulf Coast.

Though the innovators are taking different approaches, ElHage sums up their common end goal for the invasive species.

“We’re trying to get this fish into the commercial market because as humans, we can decimate their population by consuming them,” he says. “The best way to beat ‘em is to eat ‘em.”

Additional links etc.

Want to learn more, or see lionfish in person?

RumFish Grill at The Guy Harvey Outpost has a large aquarium where you can see lionfish and learn more about the invasive species and even buy a specific Lionfish tee shirt with a portion of sales going to the “Cull the Lionfish” project. 

USGS Animated Map of Lionfish invasion
FWC Lionfish info -- FAQ from FWCFWC Lionfish Derby Calendar

Lionfish resources via REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation) including The Lionfish Cookbook and YouTube video of hunting lionfish.

Link to Jim’s Dive Shop video of team “We Be Dreamin” during the Lionfish Safari, which includes Kristie Gilford at the end showing off her bright red, swollen, thumb after lionfish sting. 
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by James Branaman.

James Branaman is a photographer and feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.