The federal government has thrown its weight behind plans to field a novel weapon – the American appetite – in a bid to halt the spread of the voracious and invasive lionfish.
Like Tribbles proliferating in the holds of the Starship Enterprise, lionfish have spread throughout the Caribbean and along the Atlantic Coast in recent years, most recently invading critical reef habitat off the Florida Keys.
The non-native fish, with their "manes" of venom-tipped spines, have no natural predators in these waters. They eat indiscriminately — consuming some 56 species of fish and many invertebrate species — and reproduce rapidly.
This has prompted scientists to turn to an equally ravenous species to control the beautiful pest.
"The only way to really help the reefs is to actually get people interested in fishing for lionfish," says Renata Lana, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which just launched an "Eat Lionfish" campaign. "In fact they are quite delicious fish."
Lionfish, also called turkey, scorpion or fire fish, are not considered food by residents of the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific, their native habitat. They were kept as exotic pets in the United States for years, and researchers say it was probably someone in the aquarium trade who first freed lionfish into the Atlantic near Florida, where they were first spotted in the mid-1980s.
Since then, there has been a population explosion. A single female produces about 2 million eggs a year, and hatchlings become sexually mature in about one year, said James Morris, ecologist at NOAA’s Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research National Ocean Service in Beaufort, N.C.
"Lionfish have a life history that has allowed them to be a very aggressive invader," he said. "When they invade, they eat the abundant prey first, and then start dieting on other species."
Lionfish now thrive from North Carolina to the Bahamas, in shallow waters and coral reefs, as well as deep water environments. They can live warm or cold water, and have been seen as far north as Massachusetts. In some coral reefs they outnumber native commercial species.
Conservationists say the lionfish threaten recovery of overfished species like grouper and snapper by eating them, consuming their prey and competing for space in the reefs. They also feed on species like parrotfish, which normally control the growth of algae on a reef.
Morris says it would be virtually impossible to eradicate lionfish in the Atlantic. But he says there is evidence that targeting lionfish in specific areas such as coral reefs can make a big difference.
This is where the "Eat Lionfish" campaign comes in, lending the considerable weight of NOAA, a government agency, to grassroots efforts in the same vein.
Tasty, but watch the spines
Promoters say lionfish are tasty, with light, white and flakey meat. But they admit to challenges to starting a trend toward lionfish as a dish — including persuading fishermen and diners that the spiky creature is safe to catch and eat.
"Many people are afraid to eat the fish because they are venomous, but it’s only in the spines, not in the meat," says Lad Akins, director of operations for REEF, a marine conservation nonprofit. "With just normal precautions, you can fillet it, and get a very nice piece of fish.”
Wayne Mershon, owner of fish supplier Kenyon Seafood in Murrells Inlet, S.C., says he has a customer for lionfish — a chef at a seaside hotel will take as much as he can provide. He serves it as a delicacy. But only a few fishermen will bring it in -- even when they catch it accidentally while fishing for grouper and snapper – because they don’t want to risk handling it.
“I think the main concern with most of the fishermen is that once you’ve caught it, getting it back in the water without getting stuck by it,” said Mershon.
The lionfish sting normally is not deadly to humans, but it is extremely painful and makes some people very sick.
In its battle to win over hearts and stomachs, REEF has been sponsoring “lionfish derbies.”
“You can engage and educated the public about the (lionfish) issue -- of course you’re removing all those lionfish -- but you also cook the fish up and give people the opportunity to taste lion fish and see how good they are,” said Akins.
In REEF’s first derby, held in May 2009 in the Bahamas, enthusiastic competitors brought in 1,408 lionfish. Starting next month, it has derbies scheduled for Key Largo, Marathon and Key West, Fla., where the lionfish population is exploding.
NOAA is working on a series of lionfish events at restaurants across the United States in the coming year, aimed at creating a chain of demand —from fisherman, to wholesaler, to the dinner table.
Meantime, REEF is producing a lionfish cookbook, with recipes from around the Caribbean, and distributing environmental information and instructions on how to avoid, and treat, wounds from the fish’s venomous spine.
Akins favorite lionfish dish? “Flavorwise and in terms of simplicity, it's lionfish seviche,” he said. “It’s really good with tortilla chips.”
That tastiness may turn out to be the lionfish’s Achilles’ heel.
“If it didn’t taste good we would be in a world of trouble,” he says.