They have been described as one of the most aggressively invasive species on the planet.
The red lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific and Red Sea, was likely first introduced off the Florida East Coast in the early to mid-1990s when, as some believe, Hurricane Andrew destroyed a large beachside aquarium in south Florida, releasing six of them into Biscayne Bay. However, it also has been reported that a lionfish was discovered off the coast of Dania Beach as early as 1985, before Hurricane Andrew. In any case, the non-native species now proliferating at alarming rates in coastal waters around the U.S. resemble those of the Philippines, implicating the household aquarium trade.
Of the 12-known species of lionfish, two known as Pterois volitans and Pterois miles, have successfully hijacked the coastal waters of the Atlantic in less than 10 years and pose a serious threat to the ecology of tropical reef systems. The U.S. Geological Survey has an interesting animated map that shows how quickly they have spread in the last decade.
Red lionfish are 12-to-16-inch-long eating and reproducing machines that aggressively prey on small fish and invertebrates and become capable of reproduction in less than a year. An adult female can spawn over 2 million eggs in a year.
Lionfish are particularly territorial toward other reef fish and can consume up to 30 times their own stomach volume. To make matters worse, adult lionfish have few known natural predators — likely due to their highly effective venomous spines. It’s a recipe for disaster when considering the idea that these fish could reduce Atlantic reef diversity by as much as 80 percent.
But other kinds of recipes are fueling the eradication effort around the invasion. Despite their intimidating look and venomous spines, lionfish are quite a delicacy. Often described as a mild tender white fish similar in taste to grouper, snapper or mahi, lionfish are suitable for a multitude of cooking and serving methods. The meat is firm and “non-fishy” enough for ceviche or sashimi and is also easily baked, sautéed or grilled and pairs well with a variety of seasonings and side dishes.
According to a 2011 study by AACL Bioflux, eating lionfish is healthier than eating other popular fish because it has a higher concentration of heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids, scoring above snapper and grouper as well as tilapia, bluefin tuna, mahi, wahoo and other table-fish commonly served in restaurants. Lionfish are also very low in heavy metals like mercury and lead.