Many people may be familiar with the strikingly beautiful lionfish often found in aquariums. They may not realize that those fish are not native to the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic or the Caribbean, though they are now found in those waters in increasingly large numbers.
The lionfish invasion is believed to have started with the release of just a few lionfish in southern Florida in the mid-1980s by well-meaning aquarists. Since then, the population has exploded due to a number of factors including the lack of natural predators as well as the ability of the females to produce about 40,000 eggs every four days (about 2 million eggs over the course of a year).
Lionfish are voracious eaters and consume more than 100 different species, including red snapper, grouper, gray triggerfish, shrimp, crab and lobster, plus they compete with our native species for the same prey.
To raise awareness of this threat to our native fish species, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley proclaimed Sept. 24, 2016, as Alabama’s Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day. Hosted by the nonprofit NUISANCE Group and Alabama’s Marine Resources Division, the two-day “Lions on the Line” lionfish derby culminated with the weigh-ins and a culinary competition at the Flora-Bama Marina and Flora-Bama Ole River Bar.
Lionfish are ambush predators and are not caught by traditional hook-and-line fishing on a regular basis. As their numbers increase on reefs, more and more hook-and-line anglers are surprised to find them on the end of their line. There are also efforts underway to develop lionfish-specific traps, lionfish-hunting robots, and other means of removing lionfish on a larger scale, but for now, spearfishing by SCUBA divers remains the most efficient means of killing them.
Twenty-four divers (competing as teams of four) removed 1,662 lionfish during dives on Friday and Saturday and more than $3,500 was awarded in prizes for most lionfish, largest lionfish and smallest lionfish. Team Niuhi (Andy Ross, Barry Shively, Travis Griggs and Chris Simon) was the big money winner, taking home $2,000 for 1st Place for Most (758 lionfish), Largest (409 mm = 16.1 inches) and Smallest (62 mm = 2.4 inches). In one of the most eye-opening features of the weigh-ins, several of the lionfish brought in still had their most recent meal in their mouths, demonstrating their ability to eat many fish at one time.
“Lions on the Line” also featured a culinary competition with seven local chefs preparing free tasting samples for people to try the delicious invader. Chef Brody Olive of Voyagers at Perdido Beach Resort in Orange Beach, Alabama, took 1st Place People’s Choice with his Lionfish Tiradito (a Peruvian dish featuring raw fish similar to ceviche or sashimi). Other samples showcased the versatility of the mild and flaky fish and included lionfish nachos and dishes pairing it with steak in a modified surf and turf presentation.
Spectators were educated about lionfish not being “poisonous” but “venomous” (with the venom not found in the meat of the fish but in 18 spines) and how to properly handle and fillet lionfish to avoid being stuck. Many attendees sampled lionfish for the first time and most agreed they would order lionfish if they saw it on a restaurant menu.
NUISANCE Group is seeking input for next year’s event, so if interested, please take their survey at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/29HJ7SH.