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No Love For Lionfish In Key West, Florida

Environment jcurrer Comments13 Jan, 2018

By Patriot Project Aware Leader - Veronica Slootsky on location:  

I decided to try out my new Sealife 2000 camera over Christmas weekend with a quick getaway to Key West. When I landed after a short direct flight from DC, I was greeted by warmth and sunshine. The atmosphere was relaxed. Chickens were running around on the streets, and the buildings were quaint, painted white and adorable with their matching picket fences. I went with Captain’s Corner to do some boat diving. I was curious to see how the diving would be post-hurricane.

The reef was lovely, with many beautiful eels, parrotfish, barracuda and shark. It was also great to use my DC2000 to document the health of the reef and the colorful aquatic organisms. Unfortunately, the reef was also overrun with an invasive species called lionfish. This striped, spiny species of fish is native to the Pacific. Humans have injected Lionfish to the Caribbean both inadvertently (e.g. bilges in merchant ships) and blatantly (e.g. released from fish tanks etc). Now, they devour the babies of the native species of fish, including commercially important fish like snapper and grouper. Thanks to their venomous defenses, they have few natural predators in the Atlantic reef system, and they lay tens of thousands of eggs every few days. Scientists believe that hurricanes have helped spread the invasive species to new locations, such as the Gulf of Mexico.

The local divers explained that because of the hurricane, fewer people have been out hunting them, and their numbers have increased. Also, many lionfish that were previously living at greater depths, where scuba-fishermen cannot easily nab them have been tossed up higher in the water column by the storm.

The following day, we went diving on the Vandenberg wreck. The Vandenberg is an artificial reef intentionally sunk by the U.S. Navy after the ship had been decommissioned. Unfortunately, even at 100 feet, lionfish were prevalent all around the wreck. One of the divers took advantage of the opportunity to do some reef cleanup with a Hawaiian sling gun (and to catch some delicious dinner).

Lionfish, like many other reef fish, can theoretically carry ciguatera toxins (unrelated to the toxin their spines), so it is important to be careful. Ask locals about where the fish was caught, and whether ciguatera is prevalent in that location. Luckily, there are many options for ocean lovers to help fight this invasion. There are workshops about collecting, handling, and even cooking lionfish conducted by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF.ORG) and other groups. With some training, divers can also obtain a permit to capture lionfish in marine parks. Many divers also participate lionfish derbies and win awards for the biggest, baddest lionfish. It is important to be well-prepared and trained to handle the fish, as the spines of the lionfish contain a toxin that can cause serious reactions in many people. However, once the spines are removed, the lionfish are quite tasty. For more information about lionfish-related training, check out http://www.reef.org/lionfish

On a more positive note, some researchers are “teaching” local predators to eat them.  In Grand Bahama, some believe that by teaching Groupers that they can eat these predators, more groupers will return to the shallow reefs.

Lionfish remind us that inadvertent human mistakes can have drastic consequences for our coral reefs. It is important to remind others not to release non-native species into the wild, as these animals can negatively affect local marine ecosystems. We can also be a part of the solution to the lionfish problem in fun and creative ways. If you can’t get to a lionfish derby, try cooking some: you’d be helping our reefs and enjoying a new, delicious recipe! As they say, “If you can’t beat them, eat them!”

Hawaiian Lionfish from "The Lionfish Cookbook" 


3 eggs, beaten
1 cup chopped toasted almonds
1 cup flaked coconut
1 tbsp. sesame seeds
1 tbsp. brown sugar
1 pinch nutmeg
1 (15 ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained
½ cup chopped onion
8 lionfish fillets


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a large baking dish.

Place the beaten eggs in a shallow dish. Mix the almonds, coconut, sesame seeds, brown sugar, and nutmeg together in a mixing bowl. Stir the pineapple and onion together in a separate bowl.

Dip each lionfish fillet into the beaten egg, and then press into the almond mixture.

Place the coated lionfish into the prepared dish. Spread the pineapple mixture over the coated fillets. Bake until the fish flakes easily with a fork, about 40 minutes.

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