Trouble with an Invasive Species? Make it an Entrée.

Photo by Carl Safina for the NYT Opinion Pages

written by Joshua De Santiago

When the Caribbean and Gulf skies cleared after Hurricane Isaac, fishermen set out to reap a harvest from the reefs with the blessing of ocean biologists and seafood chefs. The fishermen are actually doing a much-needed service to the tropical reefs by whittling at the prolific and venomous lionfish, an invasive species that poses a serious risk to the fragile ecosystem, and restaurants are serving up lionfish with gusto. As a native Floridian, I endorse this unusual method of environmental stewardship – as long as the fishing is kept in check to protect the other reef wildlife. But how did this peculiar way of species control appear?

The Invasion

The lionfish (Pterois volitans and Pterois miles) arrived in the American East Coast sometime in the early 1990’s, speculated to have been released by well-meaning aquarium owners no longer willing to deal with the fish’s poisonous and painful spiky fin rays. A native of the South Pacific and Indian Ocean, the lionfish has few natural predators in the Atlantic and its voracious appetite has made it a grave threat to tropical reefs in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the East Coast. The worst case scenario according to a study from Oregon State University’s Department of Zoology and the NOAA’s  National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science is that the lionfish outcompetes the ecologically and environmentally important snapper and grouper populations and eats the coral reef ecosystem into demise. The lionfish’s population could prove to be too great of a stressor on reefs that are already subject to overfishing.


Open Season

In 2010, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary opened up its waters to fishermen with a license to catch as many lionfish as they can in a day in an attempt to reel in the lionfish’s growth. These “lionfish derbys” are now sponsored by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) and occur several times a year. Cash prizes are awarded to boats with the biggest hauls and scientists take samples of the captured fish in order to learn more about them. Meanwhile, the majority of the fish are sold to restaurants and chefs on shore who cook them in a variety of ways for the crowds that gathered for the fun activities that form part of the lionfish derby. I can tell you from experience that these derbys bring in a huge haul – the biggest usually tally around 1000 lionfish – and each and every one is delicious. Though even a light prick from the spines can produce an intense pain, it is usually not fatal to humans. The venom denatures when cooked and the flesh has no venom concentrations.

Moving Forward

Lad Akins of REEF confirms that diving fishermen are effective at keeping down the population of lionfish at the sites they frequent, though there are still upwards of 300,000 fishin the Florida Keys alone. The Oregon State Zoologists suggest that the most effective method of management is actually limiting fishing of and providing marine reserves to the few species that can feed on the lionfish. I believe a combination of both of these methods would protect the reefs best. The presiding Floridian fishing authorities should work with the REEF and NCCOS centers to create permits that allow for a greater number of fishermen to bring in lionfish. Additionally, restrictions should be developed on fishing species that predate upon the lionfish and the fish that compete with lionfish for food. Though humans may be as voracious as the lionfish, we will need to develop new policies to keep their population in control and protect our reefs.











  1. I have to say, I had no idea that lionfish could cause such serious consequences. I think these derbys are a great idea because they seem to help both the environment and local businesses associated with fishery. However, I wonder how this whole project is controlled? Is there a way to make sure that only the lionfish are being fished?

  2. I always see photos of these cool-looking fish, but I never imagined they were edible (and even tasty). This highlights the big problem with people having exotic pet species. I think this is definitely an area that needs a little more regulation- there was a boy in my high school who somehow got a piranha, promptly got tired of it and released it into a pond near his house. Untrained people (especially ignorant 16 year olds) should definitely not be allowed to get their hands on species that are such a threat to local ecosystems!

  3. To expand on vn20’s concern about the project being controlled. Though right now the reefs are protected by harvesting this invasive species, my worry is what happens when the species’ begin to decline (from demand of these fish) and fishermen decide to instead raise these species, to allow lionfish to proliferate rather than decline, because its all of a sudden economical or an entire industry is now built around these fish.

  4. Josh…if you could find a way to make kudzu appetizing you’d really have something. I believe the key to your blog was that little line “as long as the fishing is kept in check to protect the other reef wildlife.” We always have to be thinking about unintended consequences and the potentially adverse affects of having a bunch of people fishing for a large pay check. Another solution to this particular problem came to mind when I remembered the movie “Deuce Bigalow Male Gigolo” (no im not proud that I remember this movie in such great detail) and the expensive lionfish the antagonist had in his apartment. I looked on the Pet Shop and the least expensive lionfish was around $25 while they go up to $70 and beyond im sure. Im guessing this is more than the dining crowd pays.

  5. The creativity of humans never ceases to amaze me. Just as we often can trick children into doing chores by making it a game, we’ve essentially tricked sport fishers into doing the work of environmentalists. (If these derbies were marketed as efforts to save the ecosystem, would the turn-out be nearly as great? For whatever reason, hunters typically don’t like being pegged as tree-huggers, so I tend to think not.) I’d be curious to see how this phenomenon might play out in conjunction with control tactics of other invasive species. Much of North Carolina agriculture is threatened by the spread of deadly foreign weeds such as kudzu. Unfortunately, weed hunting doesn’t have the same appeal as lionfish hunting, so we may need to come up with other creative measures.
    That said, there is plenty of potential for lionfish derbies to be expanded to other corners of the country. Here’s hoping that we can all take a lesson from you Floridian entrepreneurs and make the best out of potentially devastating invasions.

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