That predatory silent roar underwater is the lionfish, an invasive species in the Caribbean that can devastate up to 80 percent of fish in a coral reef in a scant five weeks. Lionfish have a ferocious appetite — their stomachs can expand to 30 times their natural size — and have no known predators in the Caribbean
No one really knows for sure how the lionfish problem began. Some attribute it to lionfish arriving in the ballast of ships, while a second opinion points at fish aficionados dumping their aquariums into the sea.
The Chinese word for crisis is famously the same as the one for opportunity. This applies to the lionfish invasion also, with some people diving in to make a profit out of a problem.
Rachel Lynn Bowman is a commercial spearfisher of lionfish who regularly harvests along a 40-mile reef tract in the Florida Keys. She’s been selling lionfish to Whole Foods since 2016.
“Obviously, complete eradication isn’t a possibility,” said Bowman. “Managing populations in areas where other juvenile fish congregate is a very realistic goal, however. Any effort to remove lionfish from areas where native fish breed and raise young is bound to have a positive impact.”
According to Bowman, Dr. Stephanie Green has published studies showing a resurgence in local native fish populations in areas of the Bahamas where lionfish are regularly culled.
“A week ago, three friends and I speared 1,115 lionfish out of Apalachicola, Florida,” said Bowman. “We know one female lionfish can release 2 million eggs per year, and she can do that for about 13 years. If half of the fish we speared were female, then we prevented the release of 14,495,000,000 eggs. Let’s just call it an even 15 billion. I definitely consider that a dent.”
Lionfish are reef fish, which means they can’t be caught via hook or net. This makes them ideal game for divers wielding spear guns, although fishing for lionfish can be tricky. If a diver is pricked by one of the spines their hand will swell. In addition to the pros, scuba diving enthusiasts visiting the Caribbean are joining in the hunt.
Bowman has some advice for those who want to join a lionfish scuba spear hunting expedition. “Be safe and be careful,” she said. “Go with a reputable dive agency, and never dive unless you are completely comfortable. Be patient and prudent and use a quality pole spear and Zookeeper Lionfish Containment Unit, and you won’t get stung. Get in a hurry, stop paying attention, or try to handle the fish unnecessarily, and you’re asking for trouble. I’ve been stung plenty of times and I finally learned my lesson.”
Bowman isn’t the only person who has built a business around lionfish.
“I spent two years in the Bahamas in Exuma and developed an attachment to the destination,” said restaurateur Ryan Chadwick. “When I returned to Exuma eight years later, everyone was talking about lionfish and the problems it was causing to the environment. At that time, I was opening a Caribbean restaurant in New York City and I thought it would be cool to serve this invasive fish on the menu since no one else was selling it.”
In the process of guaranteeing an affordable supply for his restaurant, Chadwick developed his own shipping service that soon grew into a wholesale lionfish business that now ships from Florida to anywhere in the continental U.S. within 30 hours.
“My most memorable meal of lionfish was a sushi preparation,” said Chadwick. “Although, you can serve lionfish any number of ways: ceviche, pan-seared with butter or garlic, fried, or flavored with spices like curry, or Jamaican jerk.”
“The problem is not going away,” said Chadwick. “In fact, lionfish have been spotted as far north as the Hamptons. Unfortunately, lionfish are now part of our environment. These fish have no known predators. After they wipe out the local population of fish they begin to cannibalize each other.”
In a bid to reduce the numbers of lionfish, some destinations in the Caribbean are holding special lionfish spear hunting events and derbies.
This coming October 3-6, the island of Grenada will be holding its 2nd Annual Dive Fest. The four-day event has a lot of components, including a flotilla of dive boats departing from Morne Rouge Bay for a lionfish hunt. After a day on the water, freshly culled lionfish are served up at Coconut Beach Restaurant on the island’s Grand Anse Beach.
Sandals Resorts International’s non-profit Sandals Foundation educates local fisherman in catching and selling lionfish. Guests at their Beaches and Sandals resorts can also join special two-day lionfish catch-and-dive excursions, with all profits from the excursions going to the Sandals Foundation. At times, these lionfish hunts culminate in a chef-prepared luncheon.
In Curacao, divers can join lionfish hunts organized by dive operators Ocean Encounters and The Diveshop Curacao. Non-divers visiting Curacao can still do their bit by chowing down on the invasive fish at such restaurants as Seaside Terrace in Willemstad, Sol Food in Westpunt, and Pirate Bay in Piscadera.
In the Cayman Islands, the Cayman United Lionfish League (CULL) organizes lionfish culling tournaments every quarter, with each hunt culminating in an island-wide lionfish feast.