In 1985 the Caribbean Sea gained a new resident. This newcomer was a fish from Indonesia called the lionfish. How it got here has been debated ever since its appearance. It may have been let loose by an aquarium owner, either flushed down the toilet or let loose directly into the sea. It may have come from the ballast of a cruise ship. And whether it was introduced off the coast of Florida, a Central American country or a Caribbean island isn’t known either. What is known, however, is that the lionfish has flourished in the Caribbean and has started to cause great damage to their new environment. You’ll find them all along the Western Atlantic; near Roatan hotels on the beach, off the coasts of Mexico and Belize, throughout the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef and as far north as North Carolina.
Attractive Yet Voracious
Although lionfish are incredibly attractive with their bright stripes and multitude of long, flowing spines, they are voracious eaters with no local natural predators. Lionfish are purported to be able to eat more than 30 times the amount their stomach can carry in the course of a single day. They are skilled hunters and feed on a wide variety of mollusks, invertebrates and fish. The fact that the female lionfish reproduce monthly and can produce millions of eggs every year allows their population to grow faster than most indigenous species.
Lionfish with their poisonous spines can also cause problems for humans. Being stung by a lionfish can cause intense pain, nausea, fever, convulsions and heart failure. Those with weaker immune systems, such as children or the elderly, may even die from a lionfish sting. And although death is rare for healthy adults, they can feel the effects of a lionfish sting for several days.
For these reasons, there have been efforts to control, if not outright eliminate, the lionfish population in the Western Atlantic. Studies have been carried out to better understand their breeding methods and recognize the factors that control the populations in their native environments. Studies have shown that a monthly harvest of around 30% of the adult population in the Western Atlantic could limit population growth.
A Clever Fish
It has been found, however, that lionfish are very smart and are able to identify potential threats. Spearfishers have found that lionfish have changed their behaviour with exposure to hunting and now perceive divers as a threat whereas in the past they weren’t wary of spearfishers at all. It’s been found that spearfishing is also relatively ineffective at reducing numbers of deep sea lionfish populations.
Hunting In The Marine Reserve
Since 2011, officials in Roatan Marine Park have tried to train sharks to feed upon lionfish. Over time it’s been found that fishing is a more effective population control than shark training. The first lionfish derby was held in 2011 with 1200 lionfish being caught. Spearfishing was illegal in the park until the introduction of lionfish-only spearfishing licenses. To obtain a lionfish spearfishing license you must attend a workshop that educates the potential licensee about spearfishing regulations and pass an underwater skills assessment. The license costs $50 including a registered spear and is valid for two years.
A Delicious Meal
A bonus regarding the lionfish is that they’re actually very tasty to eat. When filleted properly they’re completely safe for consumption. The flesh is white, very dense and has a delicate, sweet and buttery taste. It’s high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in heavy metals such as lead and mercury. It works well in recipes such as fish and chips and ceviche while lending itself well to frying or baking. At some Roatan hotels on the beach you’ll even find raw lionfish sashimi or head to The Beach Grill on a Friday for all you can eat lionfish night.
Lionfish fins, tails and spines have been found to make for popular souvenirs. The spines, once poisonous, but harmless after drying, can be fashioned into jewelry and decorations. Lionfish souvenir initiatives have been started on various Caribbean islands.
The Future Of Lionfish
It’s been thought that outright eradication of the lionfish may be well impossible, but efforts to control their populations have been somewhat encouraging. With the encouragement of lionfish as food campaigns, promotion of lionfish recreational fishing and hunting trips there is hope that the populations can, at the very least, be kept in check.
Want to spot a lionfish when you are in Roatan? Talk to Roatan Divers, our new on-site dive shop!