We’re always so focused on sharing a variety of rigging tips, techniques, new gear and noteworthy destinations in an effort to make your angling adventures as safe and as successful as possible that we rarely dedicate the editorial space to discuss critical conservation topics affecting fishermen and boaters. Lionfish are currently the biggest threat to our coast, and without any natural predators these tropical troublemakers are wreaking havoc in Florida and beyond.
Native to jagged reefs and rocky shorelines of the South Pacific, Indian Ocean and Red Sea, lionfish are quickly becoming a major concern for local anglers and divers, and the issue simply cannot be ignored. Given their population explosion and aggressive behavior, lionfish have the real potential to become the most detrimental marine invasion in history. By drastically reducing the abundance of native organisms and finfish, lionfish have the capability of greatly reducing biodiversity, which will forever alter the habitat and leave behind a devastated ecosystem.
Lionfish have an insatiable appetite, compete for food with native predatory game fish and negatively impact the overall reef habitat…
Lionfish were first reported off Florida’s coast near Dania Beach in 1985. No one knows for sure how lionfish were introduced into our waters, but we do know the invasion began with only a few fish. A favorite of saltwater aquarium hobbyists, it is believed these brilliantly colored critters were initially introduced as the result of aquarium releases.
Unfortunately, since lionfish are non-native, they have no natural predators in our waters.
Lionfish stalk their prey, have little fear, and will approach and attack nearly anything. They are capable of consuming fish and crustaceans that are more than half their size and are known to prey on more than 70 different types of marine fish and invertebrates, including juvenile yellowtail snapper, grouper, parrotfish, shrimp, lobster and a wide variety of cleaner species. Lionfish have an insatiable appetite, compete for food with native predatory game fish and negatively impact the overall reef habitat by eliminating organisms that serve important ecological roles, like fish and shrimp that keep algae in check. Although lionfish are elegant and vibrant, they spread their venomous spines to herd prey. One unique fact about lionfish is that they are the only predatory species known to blow water at their victims before devouring them in one merciless gulp. In densely populated areas along forage rich shallow reefs, lionfish have consumed more than 95 percent of the local species.
Lionfish that have reached maturity are very protective to a particular location, meaning once they find suitable habitat in any sort of submerged structure, including reefs, wrecks and debris, they tend to remain there and can reach densities of more than 200 adults per acre. While lionfish sightings in Florida spiked in the early 2000s, they have since spread along the Eastern Seaboard and beyond. In fact, lionfish have been recorded as far north as New England. As of 2010, they have even invaded the northern Gulf of Mexico and are now a huge problem for all.
Lionfish are primarily red, brown and white, and have a striped, zebra-like appearance. Ironically, for such a devastating invader, they are quite magical and elegant in appearance. They grow to about 15 inches in length and can reach maturity in less than a year. Lionfish have a unique way of spawning, and females release two gelatinous egg masses containing about 15,000 eggs each, which float and drift with the prevailing currents for up to 25 days. Unfortunately, spawning lionfish can do this every four days, which explains how the invasion has expanded so drastically in such short order.
While they are certainly inviting in appearance, lionfish can inflict a lot of damage above and beyond the destruction of our fragile marine ecosystems. Outfitted with 18 venomous spines, lionfish require safe handling to avoid stings that can result in swelling, blistering, dizziness, necrosis and even temporary paralysis. While not typically life threatening, this is no ordinary bee sting and you won’t make the same mistake twice. However, the mild flesh of the lionfish is not poisonous or venomous at all and is considered a delicacy. Those who have tasted it compare it to fresh snapper or grouper. While not necessary, most people who prepare lionfish take the time to first remove all of the fins and spines with a sharp pair of shears. From this point, lionfish can be filleted and prepared like any other snapper, with ceviche a favorite method of enjoying the delicate flesh.
Relentless lionfish are threatening Florida’s saltwater fish, precious wildlife and fragile habitat in a destructive way. And while the threat is out of sight for most, below the surface the threat is real and must be dealt with now. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission encourages anglers and divers to remove all lionfish from state waters to help limit negative impacts to native marine life and ecosystems. Lionfish can be speared, caught in handheld nets or on hook and line, and there is no recreational or commercial bag limit. I hate to say this about any living creature in the ocean, but the only good lionfish is a dead lionfish, so kill them all! And remember, if you are uncomfortable touching lionfish you can report all sightings to the Reef Environmental Education Foundation at reef.org. If we all work together we can stop, or at the very least minimize, the negative impact of this relentless alien invader. With your help, fisheries managers can have a greater understanding of these tropical troublemakers and develop the best response to thwart their seemingly unstoppable siege.