Invaders of the Gulf

The lionfish, of the genus Pterois, is a venomous fish native to the Red Sea and the Indo-Pacific. Its spread throughout the Western Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico over the past several decades has led some to describe the fish as “one of the most aggressively invasive species on the planet.”

Although their 18 venomous spines can deliver a painful sting, lionfish are not deadly, and many people enjoy eating its flaky meat. If stung by a lionfish, experts suggest washing the site with hot water to help disperse the venom.

Lionfish are reef fish, meaning that they require a three-dimensional structure to survive.

With an abnormally large mouth and a stomach that can expand up to 30 times its usual size, a lionfish can eat fish that are two-thirds its own body length. And despite being known for their voracious appetites, lionfish are particularly good at storing fat and can go months without eating at all.

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An adult lionfish in the Gulf of Mexico averages one and a half pounds and a length of about nine inches. Although usually white with red stripes, lionfish can change colors over time in order to blend in with the surrounding environment.

Exacerbating the invasion, lionfish have no natural predators, and because their spread has occurred so rapidly, native species are naïve to the invaders as potential prey and unaware of them as potential predators.

Tracking Lionfish

  • It’s believed that irresponsible aquarium owners introduced lionfish along the Atlantic Coast in the early 1980s. Within several years, an increase of lionfish was observed off the coasts of Florida and the Carolinas, but it wasn’t until 2010 that the fish were observed in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
  • Because of their tendency to outcompete native fish, lionfish have been described as one of the most dire threats facing Gulf fisheries. In some places, the hungry and aggressive fish have been found to reduce the net juvenile fish recruitment by 79 percent.
  • Lionfish are ambush hunters, meaning that they’re very unlikely to pursue a baited hook. Therefore, spearfishing has emerged as the most successful method of lionfish hunting. Since lionfish are unfamiliar with being hunted by the spear, a fisherman can rather easily clear an artificial reef of dozens of lionfish within minutes.
  • Unfortunately, despite culling by spearfishing, lionfish will continue to thrive in Gulf waters. First of all, they can live at depths that divers can’t access. Also, lionfish exhibit an astonishing rate of reproduction, capable of releasing 115, 000 eggs as often as every 2 to 3 days.
  • The NUISANCE group, an Alabama-based nonprofit organization, is working to promote lionfish as a delicious seafood option, and several Gulf Coast restaurants and grocers have hopped on the bandwagon. Lionfish meat is often described as flaky, tender and mild and can be prepared like any other variety of white fish. In fact, it’s a particularly healthy option as it’s low in saturated fats and high in heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids.

text by Breck pappas

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