When I visit an aquarium I enjoy seeing the lionfish. They appear quite beautiful with their brilliant colored stripes and large pectoral fins. Of course, they are dangerous too as they are covered with venomous spikes. Lionfish, also known as zebrafish or turkeyfish, are from the genus Pterois and native to the Indo-Pacific region. Very unfortunately, however, they have greatly expanded their habitat and can be found in large populations throughout the western Atlantic. The problem for marine conservationists is that lionfish have few or no natural predators outside the Indo-Pacific region. The females spawn continuously. Moreover, the lionfish are voracious eaters, devouring large amounts of all sorts of small fish, invertebrates, and mollusks.
Ominously, as reported in The Wall Street Journal, pairs of lionfish have been spotted in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Turkey and Cyprus. While the pairs might signify mating is occurring, that is not necessarily the case. Regardless, scientists take the sighting seriously as once established lionfish are extremely difficult if not impossible to eradicate. Without natural predators to check their growth, lionfish populations grow quickly. The ravenous fish may reduce overall fish-species biodiversity by about 20% in effected areas.
Lionfish may have been introduced into US waters in the early 1990s following Hurricane Andrew and the destruction of a local aquarium. Since then they have become a dominant species in waters from North Carolina to the Caribbean despite ambitious control efforts. In 2008 the government of Belize offered a bounty for each dead lionfish. So many were caught that the program quickly ran out of money but the lionfish population continued to grow.
Both lionfish killing competitions organized by conservationists and the introduction of modified lobster traps have failed to halt the growth of the lionfish population. Unfortunately, there has not been much demand for lionfish as food. While plentiful, they are small, usually less than a foot in length. Handling them is tricky as a sting from a venomous spine can put a fisherman out of work for an entire day. Fisherman get more money for other types of fish. Still, eating lionfish seems to make more sense than random killings. A quick internet search showed that at least one large supermarket chain has begun to market lionfish fillets. Evidently, the mild white meat lends itself to a variety of recipes. I will have to try a few.