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.
The popularity of lionfish cuisine has encouraged culling events up and down the Treasure Coast and in many other coastal communities. Festivals such as the Treasure Coast Lionfish Safari in Fort Pierce from June 8 to 10 and Sebastian’s Lionfish Fest from May 18 to 20 bring communities together for celebrations that include fishing tournaments with big cash prizes and lionfish cook-offs by local chefs. Attendees can learn about lionfish through educational exhibits and taste some spectacular dishes.
The growth of these celebrations is important to the overall solution to the lionfish invasion of our waters. From avid anglers to culinary connoisseurs, everyone who participates is facilitating the ongoing removal efforts and, as it would appear, having a pretty good time at it.
Sebastian Lionfish Fest
Saturday, May 19, 2018
All events hosted at Capt. Hiram’s, 1580 U.S. 1, Sebastian
Saturday, May 19- Sunday, May 20 – Lionfish Tournament (Captains Meeting: Friday, May 18)
Teams of 1-4 anglers will compete to harvest the most fish, smallest fish and largest fish along the
Treasure Coast. Entry fee is $125 and registration is available online or at the Captains Meeting on Friday, May 18. More than $3,000 in prizes are up for grabs this year, including a new prize category for first-time lionfish divers. Participants receive discounted cook-off tickets and those holding a Saltwater Products License issued by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (available online) may also sell their speared goods to local fish markets.
Sunday, May 20, Noon-4 pm. – Cook-Off and Lionfish Removal & Awareness Day
The Sebastian Lionfish Fest delicacies will be created from the destructive fish by eight renowned local restaurants, and people line up early to get the first taste. Advance tickets (available online) are $13.50 per person or $15 at the door.
For full event details, to register for the tourney, sign up to be a vendor, or purchase cook-off tickets, visit: www.SebastianLionfishFest.com
Treasure Coast Lionfish Safari
Friday, June 8, 2018
Location: Sailfish Brewing Co. 130 N. 2nd St., Fort Pierce
5:30 pm Mandatory Captain's Meeting
6:30-9:30 p.m. Captain’s Party Release of Lionfish Ale, Silent Auction, Bar and Music
Saturday and Sunday, June 9 and 10
Location: Indian River Veterans Memorial Park , 600 N. Indian River Drive, Fort Pierce
Live lionfish, live bands, lionfish tasting, Education & Family Day, exhibits, Community Art Project, summer camps, 4-H, Scouts, schools, vendors
Diver Registration Fees:
Team: $125 (4 divers per team)
Individual: $40 Divers may keep their fish after the weigh-in. All proceeds will be put toward the Treasure Coast Lionfish Safari. Cash awards up to $2,000.
For more information: www.treasurecoastlionfishsafari.com