Thom Smith | Naturewatch: Invasive lionfish are delicious, by the way

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Who would have thought of a lionfish on a dinner plate in the 1980s, other than coastal regions of the warm, tropical waters of the South Pacific and Indian oceans, where they are native? My personal introduction to this bizarre, venomous fish was in a tropical marine tank at the Berkshire Museum's aquarium where one adapted itself to taking food from my fingers — before that, as a visitor at the New England Aquarium in Boston. When I managed the Berkshire Museum's aquarium, I had several lionfish that out grew the 500-gallon tank they were kept in, and made arrangements to take them to the New England Aquarium, where they thrived.

Once introduced in the 1980s to the pet trade in North America, the potential for disaster became evident. Their release, either by accident, or more likely on purpose by amateur aquarium keepers, whose fast-growing specimens outgrew their welcome, would not take long. Today, snorkelers and scuba divers in Florida waters may have the opportunity to swim with them, they have become so prolific. The lionfish (Pterois volitans), sometimes called the devil firefish have spread across 1.5 million square miles from Venezuela to North Carolina, with sightings even in New England. Reef Savers reports 95 sightings by experts and about 2,750 by amateurs off the Massachusetts coast.

Reef Savers was founded to help in the effort to gain control of the explosive lionfish populations. It is estimated that a single female lionfish can spawn over 2 million eggs in a year in Caribbean waters. Lionfish temperature tolerance is around 50 to 95 F, allowing then to follow the Gulf Stream north to New Hampshire. Lionfish are now established throughout most of the Caribbean and are decimating native fish in the Caribbean to Florida. "In the Bahamas, prey fish biomass fell by 65 to 95 percent after the invasion," says Stephanie Green, a marine scientist at Stanford's Center for Ocean Solutions. "Sharks don't see lionfish as a meal, either. So, the invaders spread, unchecked, devastating reef ecosystems and fisheries."

Green says, "Since lionfish are also prolific breeders, and range from shallow mangroves to non-reef habitats more than 1,000 feet deep, they're very hard to wipe out once established. People are trying though. With nets and spears, divers and scientists are taking to the water to turn the hunters into the hunted."

Almost unheard of today, is the demand for lionfish is greater than the fishermen can catch. And with the present price neighboring $7.99 a pound, the demand will continue. Randy Johnson, a Pittsfield resident, who as a teenager helped me with construction of The Berkshire Museum's first aquarium in the 1970s, alerted me to lionfish being sold for food and not just salt-water aquariums. Restaurants in Florida, for instance, are beginning to add lionfish to their menus, and even all 26 Whole Foods Markets, as well as Publix Markets, in Florida are carrying it. A phone call to the Whole Foods seafood department in Hadley answered my lionfish inquiry with a negative. The gentleman who I spoke with told me that for the most part, it is the Florida stores that are carrying the delicacy.

The downside is lionfish have long needle-sharp spines on their backs and sides that can deliver a painful sting, from venom glands in the fish's fins. When fileting and handling, avoid pricking a finger. The venom is only dangerous if injected, so it won't spoil the meat. And because cooking deactivates the venom, don't worry about eating the cooked fish.

For more information: www.reefsavers.org, www.oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/lionfish.html or www.reef.org

Thom Smith welcomes questions and comments. Email him at Naturewatch@live.com or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.

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