Bold, beautiful, and highly venomous, lionfish are among the most fascinating and photogenic species on the planet. They’re a favourite among scuba divers and underwater photographers, but, in some parts of the world, their reputation is dramatically different, as they continue to push into new territories, decimating populations of other species and destroying marine ecosystems.
Keep reading to learn how this invasive species has taken hold in the Caribbean, why it's so essential that we control their population, and what you can do to get involved. We're also including exciting information on how and where to hunt them and some ZuBlu family favourite lionfish recipes!
The lowdown on lionfish hunting
In recent years, hunting lionfish has become a bit of a trend among scuba divers. Multiple dive organisations have introduced speciality courses, and competitions like lionfish derbies have started popping up all over the Caribbean and western Atlantic. But, why?
Unlike elsewhere in the world where they have a natural place in the food chain, lionfish in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean are an invasive species. Thanks to their voracious appetite, especially for juvenile reef fish, they have a considerable impact on ecosystems almost immediately after being introduced. And, so far, the best method scientists and oceanographers have discovered to control their population is simply hunting them.
Lionfish hunting gear is surprisingly basic, with most divers carrying Hawaiian slings and other handheld spears. But to take part in a lionfish hunt, you might need a specific lionfish hunting permit. In some areas, speciality certification is also required. This helps to protect the coral reefs where lionfish like to hide out, reducing the risk of unintentional reef damage from untrained hunters trying to take challenging shots.
Invasive species explained
An invasive species is any organism that causes ecological or environmental damage in a new environment where it is not native. This can reduce biodiversity, alter habitats, or even lead to the extinction of native plants and animals forced to compete for resources like food and shelter. If left unchecked, invasive species can make huge economic and environmental impacts on the ecosystems where they are introduced.
Invasive species can be introduced to new oceanic regions via the ballast water of ships and the intentional or accidental releases of aquaculture and aquarium specimens or bait. While the origin of invasive lionfish in the Atlantic and Caribbean is widely debated, one thing is for certain - humans helped them get there. And, because they have no known natural predators in the region, their numbers have spiralled out of control, overthrowing entire reef ecosystems at an alarming pace.
Unfortunately, research organisations like NOAA have concluded that invasive lionfish populations will continue to grow and cannot be controlled or eliminated using conventional methods. Unfortunately, these marine invaders are nearly impossible to eradicate once established in a new environment. This could be disastrous to the region's fragile coral reef ecosystems and even affect native fish populations and commercial fishing industries.
The lionfish invasion - an uncontrolled spread
Once you know the scope of the problem, it's easy to see why lionfish hunting has gained so much momentum in the past few years. This invasive organism was once nonexistent in the Caribbean and western Atlantic but today, these unwelcome guests can be found as far north as New England in the far northeast of the United States. Their spread south into warm water has been even more devastating, encompassing Central America's east coast and extending down past Brazil to Uruguay. Lionfish are also found throughout the Atlantic, even in far-flung offshore regions like Bermuda.
This highly adaptive species is able to survive in a variety of ecosystems, and researchers estimate its spread will continue if left unchecked. Someday, lionfish could be found in waters all around the globe, permanently altering ecosystems along the way.
Stop the spread
If you're hoping to help stop the spread of invasive lionfish in the Caribbean and western Atlantic, there are a few things you can do. First and foremost, you can make sustainable choices if you eat fish and seafood. The lack of apex predators in our planet's food chain is one of the major factors that allow invasive species to take hold. As more and more big fish like sharks, grouper, and snapper disappear from the sea, non-native organisms like lionfish can more easily make a significant impact on local ecosystems.
Want to joint the hunt? The first step is earning a speciality certification. You’ll learn to cull these animals without risking your personal safety or that of the coral reef itself. You'll also want to educate yourself on the local laws and regulations where you dive. Bonaire lionfish hunting rules, for example, are particularly stringent - with requirements regarding licensing and equipment. Lionfish hunting on Curacao, just one island over, is radically different - with few guidelines and no regulations at all.
Once you start hunting, consider getting involved with local organisations like the Belize Lionfish Project. Groups like this can help you submit information on where you've been hunting and how many lionfish you speared. You'll also have an opportunity to find out how your catch ranks against other spearfishers in the area.
Are lionfish safe to eat?
One of the best parts about lionfish hunting is the delicious and sustainable seafood that you'll come home with. And, because only the tips of each lionfish spine contain venom, their meat is entirely safe for consumption. That being said, cleaning your catch can present a challenge, especially if you're new to the sport.
Some divers prefer to trim the spines underwater, using medical shears or a similar cutting tool. Others would rather keep their catch intact, removing spine tips later on the surface.
Check out this detailed guide from Lionfish.co for all the information you'll need on which tools to use, where the lionfish's venomous spines are located, and the best techniques to protect yourself from a sting, while preserving as much delicious lionfish meat as possible!
Tasty lionfish recipes
After a long day of lionfish hunting, there's nothing more satisfying than serving up your catch! So, we rounded up the best lionfish recipes from the areas where they're being hunted - helping you reduce this invasive species' numbers on the reef and enjoy a taste of the Caribbean and western Atlantic while you're at it.
Tropical lionfish ceviche
This raw recipe is so easy to prepare, you might even be able to whip it up on a dive boat for an ultra-fresh post-dive snack!
1/2 cup red onion, sliced very thin
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons chopped chilli pepper of your choice
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, finely minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 kilo lionfish cut into cubes or thinly sliced.
1/2 – 3/4 cup fresh lime juice, or 3–5 limes
1 tablespoon lime zest
1 cup coconut milk, canned works just fine
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
- Remove the bitterness of the onion by soaking it in a bowl of generously salted water.
- Finely chop the garlic, chilli pepper and ginger. Add the salt and mash into a paste.
- Cut the fish and place it in a medium bowl. Add the chilli-garlic paste and gently stir.
- Add the lime juice, zest and coconut milk. Stir to incorporate then cover and chill for 45-60 minutes.
- Drain the onions and add them along with the cilantro to the ceviche.
- Taste and adjust salt and lime, adding more if necessary.
- Serve with chips or fried plantain bananas.
Blackened lionfish tacos
Mild-tasting lionfish fillets get a kick of cajun spices in this easy to prepare, crowd-pleasing meal.
4 large lionfish fillets (about 1 kilo)
2-3 tablespoons cajun seasoning
1/2 cup tartar sauce
1 avocado peeled and pitted
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro leaves
3 limes quartered
2 cups shredded cabbage
16-20 small corn tortillas
1/4 cup vegetable oil
- Preheat the oven to 225ºC and place a baking sheet in the oven to preheat.
- Trim and divide the lionfish fillets in half lengthwise. Place the fillets on a plate or cutting board and sprinkle both sides and edges generously with cajun seasoning.
- Prepare the avocado sauce by adding the tartar sauce, avocado, cilantro, juice of 1 lime and a pinch of salt to a small bowl and mash until smooth. Add more lime juice and salt to taste. Set aside.
- Toss the cabbage with the juice of 1 lime and a sprinkling of salt and set aside.
- Once the oven is hot, spray the warmed baking sheet with cooking spray, place the seasoned fish on top, and lightly mist with oil or cooking spray. Cook until the fillets are opaque and easily flake with a fork, about 12-15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, spray a large non-stick skillet with cooking spray and heat over medium-high heat. Add the tortillas one at a time to the pan and cook for 1-2 minutes or until lightly golden on each side. Transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel.
- To assemble the tacos, layer two tortillas together and place some slaw in the bottom of the tortilla with a few chunks of the fish. Add a spoonful of the avocado sauce and sprinkle with additional cilantro and a squeeze of lime, and serve.
Date night lionfish
This delicious dish is perfect for impressing friends and loved ones, and pairs perfectly with a nice glass of wine.
1 kilo lionfish fillets, patted dry
1/2 cup flour, or slightly more as needed for coating
5 cloves garlic, diced
2 1/2 cups chopped tomatoes
5 teaspoons capers
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
parsley for garnish
lemon wedge for garnish
butter to sauté
- Dredge fillets in flour to lightly dust. Sauté in a pan with a small amount of hot butter over medium heat. Cook the first side, being careful not to burn.
- Turn over fish when golden, and reduce heat while adding garlic, tomatoes, capers, white wine and lemon juice. Cover and cook until the fish is tender.
- Add basil and serve immediately. Garnish with a sprig of parsley and a lemon wedge.
- Plate with rice, pasta, or potatoes and a green salad.
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