Michelle Johnston removing a lionfish.
Photo courtesy Michelle Johnston

Lionfish Invasion Threatens Marine Ecosystems and Fishing Industry


A version of this story ran in the December 2012 issue.

Above: Michelle Johnston removing a lionfish.

The lionfish is notorious for its outsized appetite. Elaborate pectoral and dorsal fins form a fan around the fish’s head like a mane. Experienced divers know to avoid its sharp spines, which carry a painful venom and keep predators at bay.
It’s an aptly named fish.

Howard Mitschke, a retired Shell pipeline coating specialist from Houston and serious scuba guy, knows all about lionfish. Nowadays, everywhere he dives in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, Mitschke runs across the new king of the sea.

And that’s a problem. “They’re going to take over,” Mitschke frets.

Off of Cozumel, dive guides have begun killing the lionfish. It took Mitschke time to reconcile the practice of divers spearing and gutting such photogenic specimens, but now he understands the necessity. In October, Mitschke attended a Houston benefit billed as “the first lionfish dinner in Texas” at Haven, where hotshot locavore chef Randy Evans served a three-course lionfish meal. The money was destined for a Mexican fishing cooperative, a community-based spearfishing operation that provided 75 pounds of lionfish fillets. Quick to note that this was the first non-local fish to land on his menu, Evans said he hoped the dinner would help spread the word that exotic lionfish could have long-term, wide-ranging effects on commercial and recreational fisheries.

The lionfish (Pterois volitans) is the latest in the long line of invasive species—from fire ants to feral hogs—threatening ecological and economic resources in Texas, the Gulf, and elsewhere in the United States. A Pacific native, the lionfish first appeared in Atlantic waters in the 1990s. Allegedly they arrived in the Gulf thanks to Florida tropical-fish hobbyists who either dumped the fish knowingly when they outgrew a tank, or lost them in a hurricane. They have since spread rapidly, with sightings in Bermuda, the Bahamas and Colombia, from the Carolinas to Louisiana, and recently 40 miles southeast of Port Aransas.

Though pretty to look at, introduced lionfish wreak havoc on marine ecosystems. The biggest problem is the amount they eat: Capable of swallowing prey up to half their size, lionfish are prodigious hunters. They devour juveniles of a wide variety of fish species and invertebrates, and the loss of beneficial organisms and food-chain disruptions heavily degrades coral reefs. They are also prolific breeders, capable of spawning every four days.

Yet aside from humans and the occasional shark or large grouper, lionfish have no predators in the Gulf. “I am serving non-Gulf seafood so we have more Gulf seafood,” said Evans, who has decided to add lionfish as a permanent item to the menu of Cove, a raw-bar just opened inside of Haven.

If the story has an upside, it’s that lionfish makes for good eating. The white flesh is meaty, not oily, and Haven’s peanut-crusted fish fritters disappeared from the benefit’s platters. The spicy, ceviche-like poisson cru—raw fish bathed in coconut milk and citrus—was a lip-smacking treat, and is a staple of the Cove menu.

“I usually don’t eat seafood,” said Michelle Johnston. “But I ate the hell out of that dinner.” Johnston is a lionfish expert with the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, a celebrated dive zone south of Galveston managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. First identified by fishermen in the late 1800s and named for the lovely corals and brightly colored sponges they found beneath the waves, the preserve was established in 1992. Two years ago, the first lionfish were found at Flower Garden Banks. Nearly 200 have since been identified, and control efforts have removed 61 of the invaders.

Different communities have come up with different ways to fight the lionfish. As in Houston, lionfish is appearing on menus in popular Caribbean tourism spots, including Honduras. The Florida-based Reef Environmental Education Foundation, a grassroots group dedicated to marine conservation, published a lionfish cookbook in 2010 to encourage consumption. In the Florida Keys, fishermen and divers compete in “lionfish derbies,” a lethal effort to control, if not eradicate, the invaders.

Since the first lionfish showed up at Flower Garden Banks in 2010, Johnston has dealt with a growing list of concerns.

Wherever you find lionfish, she says, the predatory exotics disrupt the network of organisms that help keep coral healthy, and where colorful undersea communities once rose from the ocean floor, only algae-covered wastelands remain. Lionfish can also inhibit large species that spawn and feed at Flower Garden Banks, including hammerhead and whale sharks, as well as popular commercial and recreational fish like snapper and grouper. Ultimately, Johnston says, lionfish will likely move inshore, where injury to native fisheries will be compounded by damage to a recreational fishing industry that generates more than $2 billion annually.

“They are here and they are here to stay,” Johnston says—but she remains reluctant to give up hope. “Because we still have a healthy ecosystem, it may mean we can control or manage the lionfish.”

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