Lionfish (Pterois volitans) have distinctive brown or maroon, and white stripes or bands covering their heads and body. Adults can grow as large as 18 inches.
Lionfish are native to the Indian and western Pacific oceans, but divers – presumably, some very surprised divers – first encountered them off Florida’s Atlantic coast in 1985. How’d they get there? Well, because lionfish have such a cool unique appearance, they’ve been popular with people who keep saltwater aquariums. Scientists suspect that a few of these folks in Florida released their “pets” into the Atlantic. (The first known instance of lionfish escaping into the Atlantic is said to have occurred in Biscayne Bay, Fla., in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew destroyed a beachside house and the home aquarium inside.)
However the lionfish got into Florida’s waters, the fish found things to its liking and started snacking on the native species and making more lionfish. Since then, lionfish have spread throughout the Bahamas, Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, and also north – now as far as Rhode Island and the south shore of Long Island.
Larger fish species on our coastline – the apex predators like sharks and grouper – aren’t wired to recognize lionfish as food, so the lionfish population has been able to grow unchecked.
It’s troubling enough, having a venomous, predator-less fish marching up the Atlantic. Even worse: lionfish are voracious eaters, so they can quickly and drastically reduce the fish population on a reef.
Perhaps the best hope in stopping lionfish lies with the creatures that by far consume the most seafood: us!
In 2010, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) kicked off a “Eat Lionfish” campaign. It turns out, when properly and safely filleted, lionfish is – according to NOAA – a “delicious, delicately flavored fish” that can be fried, grilled or used in ceviche. Eating lionfish has two benefits: helping to control the lionfish population, while providing a seafood alternative to such overfished species as snapper and grouper.