Eat a Lionfish, Save a Coral Reef

Red_lionfish_NCarolina_PaulaWhitfieldWith the growing focus on endangered species and diminishing fish stocks, it seems odd to report on one marine species that is doing quite well these days. In fact, it’s doing so well that it has gained the attention of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which sees the species as “one of the greatest threats of this century to tropical Atlantic reefs.”

It’s also gaining the attention of chefs, cookbook authors and opportunistic fishing enthusiasts — in fact, just about anyone that might have an occupational interest in harvesting large numbers of exquisitely beautiful, venomous fish with a mean sting.

Meet the lowly lionfish, which was at one time indigenous to remote corners of the warm Indo-Pacific. These days, however, its habitat can be found far beyond the waters of Australia or Papua New Guinea. Since 1985, when it was first spotted off the coast of Florida, its habitat has mushroomed, infesting Atlantic coastlines from Caracas, Venezuela, to New Jersey and New York.

Most alarmingly, say experts, is that it has found a haven among the ailing Atlantic reefs, preying on the very species that help to keep this delicate ecosystem alive.  Overfishing, pollution and warming waters due to climate change have all contributed to the precarious health of the Atlantic coral reefs.

Fortunately, there’s an answer, say experts, and it oddly may fit right in with our concern for declining fish stocks.

With a growing compendium of websites and apps at access, scientists have begun promoting the un-scientific answer to invasive species control: a fork and knife.

“Got to eat ’em to beat ’em,” writes National Geographic Young Explorer Erin Spencer, who offers tasty recipes on how to cook the spiny fish straight from the Keys and interviews fishermen on how to catch the lionfish safely.

The Lionfish Portal, sponsored by NOAA, lists tips on how recreational divers and commercial fishing companies can harvest the predator, and how to avoid the sting that diver Mike Ryan notes “won’t kill you, but [will] make you wish you were dead.”

For those who want to help out the environment but aren’t really sure they have the moxie to harvest their own lionfish, there’s a host of restaurants up and down the U.S. East Coast that now advertise the delicacy, attesting to its growing availability in warming waters. There’s also the option of tracking down a commercial source and purchasing a recipe book through the Lionfish Portal.

Of course, those who do should read the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s warning concerning ciguatera, a toxin that can also be found in a large number of other commercially sold fish, from snapper to mackerel.

Most restaurants that serve lionfish are still having a problem getting a ready supply to offer on a daily basis. If NOAA’s campaign is successful, however, this pricey fish — which ranges wholesale around $20 a pound — may become the next culinary rage, and hopefully a help for the embattled Atlantic reefs.

Image of red lionfish: NOAA/Paula Whitfield

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

9 responses

      1. Scott don’t waste too much time. This reporter didn’t much investigating or they would have found out that Jamaica has a Lionfish fishery. And since the fishery opened they have seen a 60% drop in lions around the island , Old numbers but to say they haven’t heard of them?? No. Not buying it. Isolated cases maybe.

        1. Thanks for your comment, Brian.
          Good points to bring up on the success of lionfish reduction in and around Jamaica. They help to illustrate the potential of NOAA’s campaign (which as explained, focuses not on Jamaica, but in the Atlantic waters where they are considered native to the area). As L. Scott Harrell notes, the fishing technology needs some refining, but your point certainly shows some optimistic possibilities!

        2. Technology yes to some degree and yes some fishing rules( spear regs and yes trapping have been spoken about for deep water lions.
          But traps almost have a potential to do more harm then good to already existing fisheries by catch is allowed in or if they are abandoned, left unattended.
          What’s really needed to do some good and make a dent is a fishery. In the restaurant I work I’ve been selling lions for about 7 yrs with much success. Their is plenty of room in the market for lions,I mean eating lions is saving our seas what other slogan do you need?? Realisticly it would take pressure off other highly sought after species like grouper, tuna etc. We’ve seen grouper and anapper sales drop when we have then matched against Lionfish, which most of the time came off the same boat if not atleast same dock we went to pick up from.
          Fresh local sustainable.
          Lionfish. The next thing we need to start eating. They eat hundreds and thousands of other commercial fish.

        3. Excellent points, Brian. Thanks for bringing those up. The point about needing a fishery is great food for thought :-)


  1. Nice article. The lionfish invasion poses a unique threat and one that
    requires innovative approaches to control. The good news is that there is
    increasing evidence that native fish populations can recover relatively quickly
    if lionfish numbers are reduced, so the question becomes one of how to do this
    effectively and on a fiscally sustainable basis. Successful and sustained
    removal will require strategies that mobilize a range of stakeholders. A key element will be development of markets that create commercial incentives for removals. Ideally, these should provide livelihood opportunities for the fisher communities that are directly impacted by the threat. Foremost of these markets is indeed the fisher/seafood seller/restaurant. Another is the market for use of lionfish spines and fins for jewelry and other decorative items. Information here:

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