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 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.
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.
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.