Unless you’ve been wandering the plains of Africa’s Serengeti for the last couple of years, you’ve probably heard about pesky lionfish. These colorful animals, recognized by their flowing fins that resemble the manes of male lions, are native to the Indo-Pacific Oceans. But thanks to some idiotic saltwater aquarium owners, likely in South Florida, pet lionfish were released into the wild years ago. And that’s where the problem took root.
With no natural predators, voracious appetites and the ability to breed quickly, lionfish numbers exploded. They are now found throughout the Caribbean and the Atlantic coast. By 2011 they were established in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Lionfish can live in depths up to 700 feet or in the shallows near piers and jetties.
Biologists aren’t sure how lionfish are kept in check in their native environment or why grouper or sharks don’t eat them here. What is known is that invasive lionfish grow bigger and with no enemies, they can quickly decimate native fish around natural and artificial reefs. So aquatic war has been declared.
It’s now open season year-round for lionfish in Florida waters, with no bag or size limits. You don’t need a fishing license to harvest them with handheld pole spears, Hawaiian slings or nets. Florida’s Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission is promoting lionfish as a tasty seafood alternative.
“Lionfish are certainly trendy and I hear great things about them,” says Tom Rice, co-owner of the Marlin Grill in Sandestin’s Baytowne Village. “They’re strong swimmers with muscle mass and that results in good-tasting filets like triggerfish. I’m going to check with our seafood supplier (Destin Ice Seafood Market) to see if we can get some to try.”
Capt. Grayson Shepard is an Apalachicola charter boat skipper who spears lionfish on the side. He runs as far as 40 miles offshore to target sites from 100 to 140 feet deep. Good dives can yield up to 300 fish of all sizes. For his labor, Shepard earns $3.00 a pound at wholesale prices for uncleaned fish.
“Lionfish are absolutely delicious,” he adds. “We have one restaurant that serves them whole, with the head on and it’s a very attractive presentation. The demand is pretty high. People are calling up the seafood markets and asking for more once they’ve tried them. I don’t expect to make any real money catching lionfish. But I am making enough that my dive hobby is paying for itself.”
The 7th annual Lionfish Removal and Awareness Festival will be May 15 and 16 at AJ’s Seafood and Oyster Bar and HarborWalk Village in Destin. Activities will include fillet demonstrations, family friendly games and activities, art, diving and conservation booths in conjunction with the world’s largest lionfish spearfishing tournament, the Emerald Coast Open. The 2021 Lionfish Challenge removal incentive program begins May 21 and continues through Labor Day, Sept. 6. For more details on the lionfish removal efforts, please visit FWCReefRangers.com.