Stuffed to the Gills: Invasive Lionfish's Feeding Frenzy Causing Economic Damage

Mar 6, 2015

Credit FWC's Flickr account

Florida’s fishing industry has dealt with its fair share of problems, with oil spills and grouper shortages. But as Matthew Seeger reports, an article from Florida Taxwatch exposes another problem- ecological damage caused by a hungry little troublemaker known as the lionfish.

The signature fin stripes of the extravagant lionfish may look beautiful, but unfortunately for Florida, those are looks that can kill.

The red lionfish, or Pterois volitans, has been on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s most wanted list since the mid 90’s. It’s an invasive species, usually native to the Indo-Pacific region.

“They do have quite a voracious appetite, and tend to move onto reefs and basically eat up all the other species on there that they can eat," says Amanda Nalley, Public Information Specialist for the FWC, "and then they also compete with larger species, especially predatory species such as grouper and snapper that are on those reefs as well.”

The hook here is that those large predators aren’t doing the same to the lionfish. For some reason, lionfish aren’t just unappetizing- other fish are downright dodgy around them.

“There was this great piece of research where they put a lionfish in a tank with some Nassau Grouper that had not eaten in several days, and those Nassau Grouper did not eat that lionfish," Nalley said. Not only did the lionfish survive the test, it claimed the tank like it owned the joint.

No one’s quite sure what brought the fish to our waters, but the little bugger has caused a headache for the local fishing industry. This was the subject of an article included in a publication the Florida Taxwatch, whose report came on the heels of last week’s National Invasive Species Awareness Week.

“What we’ve seen over the last few years is a potential decrease in some of the important fish species that make up an important part of Florida’s fishing industry," said Robert Weissert, the senior vice president for research at Taxwatch.

Lionfish have found a veritable buffet here in Florida’s waters, with little competition from other predators. In fact, a study from Oregon State University back in 2012 showed that the insatiable little so-and-so’s managed to reduce the native fish population in the Bahamas by about 65 percent in just two years. In fact, they’re now more common here than they are in their waters of origin.

But according to both Weissert and Nalley, there’s pushback. It turns out, if you take out the spines and fillet them, the suckers are darn good eatin’. In fact, Nalley says that, unlike puffers or fugu fish, whose toxins are flesh-based, the venom of the Lionfish is localized in their stingers, and can even be neutralized with heat.

“Filleting is actually pretty easy to do," she said. "It’s pretty easy to locate those spines.”

The biggest issue with combating the lionfish’s reign of terror, Nalley says, is ignorance.

“A lot of people, you’d be really surprised, aren’t aware that lionfish are an issue," she explained. They aren’t aware of how lionfish ended up in our waters, they aren’t aware that you can eat them or that they’re found in restaurants…”

Lionfish populations have been drastically rising since their introduction, and have been slowly making their way up the east coast. Florida’s salt water recreational and commercial fishing industries are huge, and Weissert says that the damage being done by lionfish is already having serious consequences.

“So, in total, we’re talking about 175,000 jobs in two industries that could potentially be negatively affected by this invasive species," said Weissert.

As of yet, there isn’t any real consensus on how to get rid of the lionfish. They’re still not well-understood, even in their native waters. For now, turning this hunter into prey by encouraging people to catch them is the only real weapon in the conservationist’s arsenal.