Invasive lionfish population booming, making species popular food choice

Beaufort GazetteSeptember 9, 2013 

In the past few years, the population of the invasive, ecosystem-damaging lionfish species along the coast from Florida to North Carolina has grown almost exponentially, many scientists say.

Now, some have proposed a way to combat the menace: by eating it.

Fish ecologists and biologists have advocated catching and eating lionfish, native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, as a way to eradicate it from East Coast waters. Sightings once were extremely rare, but The Washington Post reported in 2010 said that in some areas along the East Coast, lionfish densities had increased by 700 percent. The problem is particularly acute in North Carolina.

NOAA biologists also found that reefs along the East Coast were completely transformed by the exposure to lionfish, according to the Post report.

Popular speculation on the fish's Atlantic Ocean origins hold that the fish escaped or was released from a Florida aquarium in the early 1990s, possibly during Hurricane Andrew in 1992, according to an S.C. Department of Natural Resources report.

DNR Marine Resources Division deputy director Robert Boyles said the agency doesn't have detailed records on the fish's population off the South Carolina coast. The agency instead relies mostly upon anecdotal evidence from divers who spot them.

DNR's chief concern is the effect the fish and other invasive species have on overfished, at-risk species native to the waters. Lionfish are a detriment to native snapper and grouper because they eat the same food, Boyles said.

Other reports indicate that the fish might also eat young snapper and grouper, although Boyles said DNR hadn't seen proof of that.

Lionfish have no natural predators, which is why officials have encouraged humans to eat the fish.

But catching and eating the fish is no easy task.

Lionfish are not typically caught with a rod and reel. Most are caught by divers or by spearfishing, said charter boat captain Bo Von Harten.

Once the fish are caught, they have to be delicately prepared because the fish have 18 venomous spines, much like a jellyfish, causing severe pain. A DNR report advised running the affected area under hot water and seeking medical attention as treatment.

The spines aren't considered deadly, but Boyles noted, "No one thought a stingray could be deadly until Steve Irwin was killed by one."

Despite those obstacles, there is a demand for the once-exotic fish. Restaurants in cities across the Eastern seaboard, including some in Charleston, have added lionfish to their menus.

"I have to salute the chefs willing to take the time to prepare lionfish and create a market for them in Charleston," Boyles said. "It's making lemonade out of lemons. I've heard from people who have said the fish is quite tasty, too."

The fish, with its tender white meat, has been compared to the native snapper or grouper in the area.

The Associated Press and Charleston Post & Courier staff writer Bo Petersen contributed to this report.

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