When you get stung by a lionfish, you know it. Immediately, the wound turns red, as a numbing toxin spreads from the affected area. This is accompanied by spells of dizziness and nausea, and if left untreated can lead to serious pain or even death. Even being pricked by a dead fish can have side effects, as the spines of the lionfish retain venom even after death.
Why then, has supermarket chain Whole Foods started to sell the venomous lionfish within all of their Florida stores? A Whole Foods representative spoke to MySuncoast Sarastoa, stating it is part of an initiative “to [protect] the surrounding waterways and its inhabitants – all while providing an alternative, affordable and delicious seafood option”.
This move may come as a surprise to the prospective and perhaps cautionary buyer, as most of the public’s knowledge of the fish ends at its striking coloration and, of course, its beautiful but venomous spines.
A buyer may wonder why such a venomous fish is being sold as a food item at a reputable chain, and moreover, why it was not sold earlier if it is as safe and delicious as Whole Foods claims. To answer these questions, we’ll take a quick look at the lionfish’s history in U.S. waters.
The Lionfish at a Glance
The lionfish belongs to the genus Pterois, of which there are 12 recognized species. Of these 12 species, the red lionfish (P. volitans) and the common lionfish (P. miles) are popular aquarium fish, due to their exotic appearance. They are native to the Indo-Pacific region, but a in the 1980s, they were discovered off the eastern coast of Florida.
There are several theories as to why this occurred, but one of the most accepted is that the source is private aquariums. This makes sense, as the Red Lionfish can grow as long as 18.5 inches, a size large enough for the unprepared and distraught pet owner to dispose of the fish in the nearest ocean.
Regardless of the origin point, in just around 30 years, lionfish have spread across almost the entire eastern Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico (“Lionfish Research”). How did this happen? Perhaps more importantly, how does this affect the health of coral reefs?
The Reef Environmental Education Foundation (R.E.E.F.) has it out for the lionfish. On their website, which “seeks to conserve marine ecosystems by educating, enlisting and enabling divers and other marine enthusiasts to become active ocean stewards and citizen scientists”, the foundation has a whole section on removing the invasive fish from U.S. waters.
Reading through a fact sheet provided by the website, the picture surrounding the surge in invasive lionfish populations becomes clearer.
According to the report, a single female can spawn around two million eggs per year, which are dispersed through currents. Additionally, R.E.E.F. states that when the fishes have left their larval stage, they become generalist predators that travel in dense populations, capable of indiscriminately consuming over 460,000 prey fish per acre per year.
Considering that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s FAQ for the lionfish lists the Atlantic population as “common”, the amount of raw biomass consumed by these fish has to be staggering.
Finding a Solution
In 2012, a study by Green et al. was published on reef fish populations in the Caribbean from 2008-2010, in the hopes of finding a link between lionfish population density and the density of 42 prey species. The team found that “during this period lionfish increased from 23% to nearly 40% of the total biomass of predators residing in the study area, which included 16 ecologically-similar native fishes, in terms of body size and diet…. Between 2008 and 2010, the combined biomass of [the] 42 [prey] species declined by 65%, on average, across the study reefs”.
Their interpretation of these results were grim: if left unchecked, lionfish populations could wipe out several endangered species, as well as push native predators out of their ecological niches.
Given the inherent complexity of most reef ecological interactions, the removal of predators from the food web could have long-reaching impacts.
To combat this potentially dark future, R.E.E.F. has taken the fate of the lionfish into its own hands. Teaming up with partners like Mote Marine Aquarium and NOAA, R.E.E.F has kick-started and contributed to several initiatives.
The first of these projects is the annual lionfish derbies. According to R.E.E.F.’s own page on derbies, they serve to address “myths and much misinformation regarding the biology and ecology of lionfish”.
Additionally, “Lionfish derbies serve to educate participants and the public and raise awareness of the problem,” including awareness outside of the invaded areas. Slowing the explosion of population in still untainted areas is of utmost importance, as mass education has the potential to reduce both release of lionfish and other aquarium fish into the wild, as well as teach sustainable fishing practices.
At any rate, the lionfish derbies have certainly been successful, at least according to R.E.E.F.’s own derbie page, which proudly totes that from 2009-2015, over 16,000 lionfish have been caught.
However, fishing tournaments alone will not put a significant dent in lionfish populations. If you really want to make an impact, you have to move the focus from the sport to the table.
A Tasty Trend
Enter The Lionfish Cookbook, a “unique blend of 45 tantalizing recipes, background on the lionfish invasion and its impacts, as well as information on how to safely catch handle and prepare the fish” (“R.E.E.F. Releases”).
The lionfish, like grouper, is a flaky white fish with a slight buttery flavor, notable for its taste being less “fishy” than some other options. With surging populations and a meat with a desirable taste, the lionfish seems poised to take the fish market by storm, and companies are starting to take notice.
Returning to Whole Foods, the sudden appearance of the lionfish on its stores’ shelves no longer seems so strange. To reduce fears about the lionfish toxin, Whole Foods has also assured that each of its seafood employees have received training to safely and securely remove the spines. Other than that, the only big roadblock is the tendency for the consumer to stick to known and thus safe options, and only time will tell how big this issue will be in the future.
For those customers willing to step out of their comfort zones, they might be surprised to discover the light, delicate flavors of the lionfish, and at affordable prices to boot. To top it off, choosing the lionfish supports reef biodiversity, so customers are not only choosing the delicious option, but the ecological one as well.
For these reasons alone, consider making the lionfish a new part of your diet. The oceans, and your stomachs, will thank you for it.
For more information on lionfish: http://www.reef.org/lionfish/quickfacts
Lionfish Filleting Tutorial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTpI27ILFBE
To purchase The Lionfish Cookbook: http://www.amazon.com/Lionfish-Cookbook-Tricia-Ferguson-Akins/dp/0615428924
Green, S., et al. “Invasive Lionfish Drive Atlantic Coral Reef Fish Declines.” PLOS One 7.3 (2012)Print.
“Lionfish (Pterois volitans, Pterois miles) Frequently Asked Questions.” myfwc. 2016. Web. <http://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/nonnatives/marine-species/lionfish/faqs/>.
“Lionfish Derbies.” R.E.E.F. 2016. Web. <http://www.reef.org/lionfish/derbies>.
“Lionfish Quickfacts.” R.E.E.F. 25 Oct. 2011 2011. Web. <http://www.reef.org/lionfish/quickfacts>.
“Lionfish Research Program.” R.E.E.F. 2013. Web. <http://www.reef.org/lionfish>.
“R.E.E.F. Releases Lionfish Cookbok.” R.E.E.F. 2010. Web. <http://www.reef.org/enews/articles/reef-releases-lionfish-cookbook>.
“Whole Foods Market Takes a bite out of lionfish.” MySuncoast. 25 May 2016 2016. Web. <http://www.mysuncoast.com/dining/whole-foods-market-takes-a-bite-out-of-lionfish/article_20497b5e-2285-11e6-9093-f386f196eff3.html>.