Is it Safe to Eat Lionfish in Roatan?

It Safe to Eat Lionfish in Roatan?

You may have noticed a once unfamiliar fish on the menus of your favorite Caribbean restaurants.  Lionfish are actually native to the Indian and South Pacific oceans, but they started being found off the coasts of Florida and North Carolina in the early 2000s.  In a short period of time their numbers increased rapidly, and they started competing with and eating native fish species.  It’s actually the first fish native to the South Pacific to ever establish itself off the east coast of the US.

A strikingly beautiful fish characterized by flamboyantly large fins and spines, lionfish are very popular among aquarium owners.  And it’s thought this was how they were introduced into the Atlantic – possibly flushed down the toilet when they were no longer wanted.  Lionfish have spread up and down the US coast, into the Caribbean Sea, off the coast of our tiny island of Roatan and as far south as Brazil.  Because of their venomous spines wondering is it safe to eat lionfish in Roatan is a legitimate concern.  The quick answer is that yes, you can eat them, and they are very delicious!

Toxic Venom

It’s true that lionfish have well developed venom glands that produce neurotoxins in their fins.  Lionfish typically have 18 spines. They have 13 spines along the dorsal fin, three spines on the anal fin and a spine on each pelvic fin.  The largest spines can be up to four inches in length.  Being poked by one of their spines will not be fatal, but it can cause an extremely painful sting with intense discomfort that can last for several days.  Because the lionfish isn’t aggressive towards humans, stinging is usually accidental.

Lionfish in RoatanThe antidote to lionfish stings is similar to that when being stung by a stingray – soaking the affected body part in hot water.  This helps break down the proteins in the venom and can help reduce the pain and the severity of other symptoms such as swelling, sweating, chills, headache, nausea, cramping and possible temporary paralysis.  It’s highly recommended to seek medical care as well.  The medical professionals can ensure that no parts of the spine are still embedded in the skin, properly clean and sterilize the affected area and ensure there are no chances of further allergic reactions.

Edible Flesh

So, although the lionfish can deliver a dose of toxic venom with a sting, the venom doesn’t become activated unless it actually penetrates the skin.  You still need to be careful when cleaning dead lionfish because of the risk of being pricked.  But once the flesh is cooked the venom is deactivated and the fish is completely safe to consume.  Lionfish is generally seasonally available if you know a local spearfisher in the Caribbean and Florida but may be difficult to find farther afield.  But as conservation group lobbying efforts become more effective the fish will likely become more regularly available in new markets.

An Invasive Species

Lionfish are voracious predators and have caused a huge decline in native fish species in the Caribbean.  Because of their venom and spines, they aren’t targeted by other predator fish.  Add this to the fact that they’re also prolific reproducers and you have an invasive population that is growing rapidly.  Lionfish hunts, fishing derbies and culling programs have been organized to try and keep the lionfish population in check.  It’s thought that the species has become so entrenched in our waters that it’s highly unlikely they can ever be eradicated completely.  Many of the fish live at depths of around 1000 feet which can make their capture quite difficult.  However, it’s hoped that their population can be controlled, especially in places like marine reserves and around the Caribbean islands.  Being promoted as a safe and tasty meal is one method of trying to curtail the population.

Scuba divers in Roatan are encouraged to get their Lionfish hunting license through the Roatan Marine Park and can spear lionfish on their dives. If you are curious about trying tasty lionfish, The Beach Grill has an all-you-can-eat fish fry every Friday with lionfish on the menu.

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