Lionfish Invasion: An Update on Successes

lionfish-featuredI still remember the first time I encountered an invasive lionfish. It was in the late spring of 2010 during a scuba dive on the North Wall of Grand Cayman. For those unfamiliar, the North Wall is where the coral reefs surrounding the island, at 50 to 70 ft. in depth, abruptly drop off to the 5,000+ ft. abyss below (which, by the way, is very similar to the moment I first step foot in a women’s clothing store with my wife). We descended the wall to around 100 ft. and ran an eastward course. Much to my surprise, nearly every overhang we encountered was home to at least one large adult lionfish.

This dive ended with over a dozen of these fantastically finned fish making an appearance. Much like the wall itself, this dive served as sheer contrast between the beautiful native Caribbean reefs that we know and the dark unknown this epidemic has brought to the tropical western Atlantic.

But we get plenty of the doom and gloom on a daily basis; the focus of this article is on the successful strides being made to control the invasion.

Culling the herd, one specimen at a time

Not without its fair share of naysayers when efforts began, it appears the manual method of removal with spears (and similar devices) can and will make a difference. A recent study by scientists at Oregon State University indicates that reducing lionfish populations between 75 and 95% in certain areas will allow native fish populations to rebound.

lionfish-update1The key point here is that total eradication, which is all but impossible, isn’t necessary for reefs to recover. And this isn’t just theory; on select sites in the Bahamas, researchers have removed enough lionfish to maintain these levels. For their efforts, they’ve seen the native prey populations increase by 50–70%. In areas where no intervention took place, native species continued to decline and disappear.

The bottom line is, this method works! If you’re a diver, I encourage you to take part (after checking local regulations). Grab a spear and make a difference while you enjoy your dives.

Derby days

What better way to rid an area of a nuisance than turning its capture into a team-based competition and putting a bounty on the most, largest, and smallest specimens? That’s the general idea behind a lionfish derby.

The first derby was put on by REEF (Reef Environmental Education Fund) and took place in Green Turtle Cay, Abaco, Bahamas back in 2009. It was a rousing success and led to the removal of 1,400+ lionfish. They now operate multiple derbies every year and have collected more than 12,000 lionfish to date. Other organizations have also launched their own competitions throughout the Caribbean, Bahamas, and tropical western Atlantic with great participation and success.

If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em

Eating a lionfish has got to be dangerous, right? Quite the contrary! When the venomous spines are removed, lionfish are safe to prepare and consume as you please. In fact, that’s just what many restaurants around the affected range are doing to not only promote awareness, but also position lionfish as a seafood delicacy.

lionfish-update2I look forward to the day “Caribbean lionfish” is regularly found on the menu at seafood restaurants throughout the States. And that’s one step closer to a reality with ventures such as Spinion, Ltd. This business, based on Grand Cayman Island, was started by a couple from Chicago and a native Caymanian. They’ll soon begin exporting culled lionfish to the US market.

Also, if you’re curious how lionfish taste, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. This white, flaky, buttery fish is comparable to grouper, hogfish, or even mahi mahi depending on where it was collected.

If you’d like to try your hand at preparing lionfish, check out The Lionfish Cookbook. It’s full of great recipes and proceeds from its sale support REEF’s conservation efforts.

Educating the masses

When you encounter an aquarist who isn’t at least somewhat familiar with the plight non-native lionfish are causing (and presumably lives under a rock), they usually don’t understand why you would want to kill such a majestic creature. However, when they get all the background, usually they’re ready to go all King Henry VIII on any Caribbean lionfish they encounter.

In Florida, FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) actively promotes awareness of these non-native fish and their effects on coral reefs. Last year, they hosted the Lionfish Summit, which brought together divers, resource managers, conservationists, and scientists to form battle plans to attack the finned invaders and continue getting the word out.

In the US and beyond, REEF helps educate the public, regularly conducts underwater surveys, and organizes the previously mentioned lionfish derbies. These surveys provide great insights into how lionfish are affecting native populations.

Other organizations have also joined the fight, such as the World Lionfish Hunters Association, with public outreach, educational programs, and direct-action hunting programs.

In the face of a seemingly insurmountable task, we can all make a difference. Ongoing efforts and new ideas will be the catalyst for native habitats to reach equilibrium with these invasive predators.

Tell us about what you’ve done to help fight lionfish in the comments below!


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About "Caribbean Chris" Aldrich

"Caribbean Chris" Aldrich is co-founder and Director of Saltwater Smarts, an avid SCUBA diver, and contributor to a live rock mariculture project in the Florida Keys. He has been an aquarium hobbyist for 20 years and his current aquarium is a 127-gallon Carib reef biotope.


  1. Phil Karp says

    Great update! It is indeed good news that culling is effective. However, for culliung to be sustainable, a range of stakeholders will need to be involved. Removals by volunteer divers are helpful, but the real key is to get those with a commercial incentive for removal involved, covering various vertical markets. The fisher/seafood seller/restaurant market is defintely one of these. However, for this to be sustainable, the economic return to fishers for harvesting lionfish needs to be increased sufficiently to offset the higher cost of harvesting them (need to use spears or hand nets) as compared to other seafood species. One approach, in which I’m personally involved, is promotion of use of lionfish spines and tails in jewlery and other decorative items. Its already happening in Belize. Information here:

    Another market is the aquarium trade. Believe it or not, there are still 60,000 lionfish per year being imported to the US from the IndoPacific for sale to hobbyists. These folks are the cause of the invasion (the story that the source of the Atlantic invasion goes back to a pair of pet lionfish that were washed out to sea during hurricane Andrew has been pretty much de-bunked; the real cause was intentional releases by hobbyists), and could be made part of the solution if a ban were to be placed on import of live lionfish from anywhere except the Atlantic. Legislation to this effect is already in the works in the Florida legislature.

    • Matt Bowers (Muttley000) says

      Thanks for the link on the jewelry, maybe a way to get the women in the family knowledge of the problem! If I were in the market for a lion fish, I would want it to be from the Caribbean, seems like they would be easier to ship and possibly cheaper. Maybe the issue is the cost of collection in the Caribbean versus the indo-pacific regions?

      • Chris Aldrich says

        There are some businesses already marketing invasive P. volitans and P. miles as “Caribbean lionfish”, which is encouraging to see. In fact, one of the Caribbean collectors I deal with does just that.

        Anytime you can eliminate the big trek from the Indo-Pacific region, you’ll get yourself a less stressed specimen. Plus you’re helping out the reefs of the Carib with the purchase. It’s a win-win!

        Even with the longer distances they’re being shipped; well-traveled and established distributions routes, cheap labor, and lax regulations in many regions of the Indo-Pacific will make it harder for “Caribbean lionfish” to gain traction over imported specimens (at least from a financial standpoint).

    • Chris Aldrich says

      Thanks for stopping by, Phil. Glad you enjoyed the update and thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

      You are correct. For a developing market to gain critical mass it needs to be commercially viable. When larger companies find ways to make profits in a niche, an infusion of dollars will follow. Can you imagine a boatload of commercial divers scouring a reef for lionfish? What a sight that would be! I see this being entirely possible if lionfish can gain traction as a seafood delicacy in a more widespread manner (rather than just the affected area and a smattering of establishments beyond). As I mentioned in the post, Spinion could be the first commercial operation to help this gain traction as promoting lionfish is part and parcel of their marketing.

      Thanks for the info about lionfish jewelry. I’ve heard a few mentions of this before, so it’s great to see it taking more of a hold. What a great (developed) asset for local communities! I’d love to hear more about your involvement if you could send further info via the contact form here on our site.

      While I’m sure uninformed aquarists were part of the problem, I don’t believe the onus can be solely placed on hobbyists. I do feel that the other causes I’ve covered in previous updates here on Saltwater Smarts do hold varying degrees of weight. Much of our message here at Saltwater Smarts revolves around sustainability which includes educating uninformed and new hobbyists about the perils of releasing captive specimens back into the wild (native or not).

      I have been following the legislation in Florida and intend to write an update on the topic in the near future. I was encouraged to see that they are only citing Pterois in the bill. The family Scorpaenidae contains several other species in other genus that I don’t believe should be part of an importation ban. While I like the idea of ending the importation of Pterois into Florida, I’m not sure how I would feel about this type of legislation on a national level. I’m still milling that one over and watching this closely.

      • Phil Karp says

        Thanks Chris

        I’m gald that you agree re need for commercially sustainable solutions. I posted a blog on this earlier this week.
        Part 2 will be an update on lionfish jewelry and other art-related control initiatives.

        As you note, it would be great if lionfish became widely accepted as a seafood delicacy. A boost for that would be designation of lionfish as a good choice by Seafood Watch. I and others have been in contact with them about this and they say that its under consideration. While this would require a bit of a stretch in terms of their “sustainable seafood” definition, I do believe that promoting lionfish consumption would fall within the spirit of what they are trying to do.

        It is very encouraging to hear that some aquarium fish providers are sourcing juvenile lionfish from the Caribbean and are marketing them accordingly. What isn’t clear from the legislation is whether this would be allowable in future. To me, the wording suggests that ALL importation would be prohibited, irrespective as to whether the fish come from the native or invaded range. I hope that I am wrong.

        • Chris Aldrich says

          Thanks for sharing your blog post, Phil. I look forward to part 2.

          I’ll have to check out Seafood Watch further. That sounds like a great avenue to promote lionfish as a staple seafood item.

          You’ve hit my biggest fear with legislation on the head…what else will this effect? While the spirit of anything brought forth may well be with good intentions, it’s those unintended consequences that could really hinder current actions and initiatives. Yet another reason it’s important to keep an eye on what’s happening and speak out when necessary.

  2. Seems we think alike. I was about halfway through reading when I thought “Hmmm, can you eat em?”.

    • Chris Aldrich says

      Indeed, Kevin! They taste much better than their appearance might suggest.

      • Great subject..
        Great Effort…

        The poor weatherman gets blamed for ALL KINDS OF THINGS!!
        NO LAW on the books, or proposed, (to my knowledge) can / will control the weather..
        YES.. There was a Hurricane..

        Many Invasive Species are seen in there waters.

        There are laws on the books, if and when enforced, would have done a lot to circumvent our present problem with “Lion Fish”.

        Stop and do some logical thinking..
        “THEY” seem to be EVERYWHERE..
        ?? What is a commonality at each PORT ??
        There are laws governing the TREATMENT OF BILGE WATER IN SHIPS. (thermal, chemical)
        We have massive ,invasive Fish and Inverts, problems in the Great Lakes.
        CHECK IT OUT !!

        I did not see one mention of, in My Opinion, the Main Scientist and Team, that has lectured World Wide about his findings over the last 12 + years.
        No mention of his agency.

        I applaud all the efforts to solve the problem.
        The problem should be attacked from ALL angles.

        Best regards

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