Chefs need to introduce this “delicious” fish to consumers, says a new government study looking at how to curb the rapid growth of lionfish, an invasive species not native to the Atlantic Ocean. NOAA researchers suggest that approximately 27 percent of mature lionfish will have to be removed monthly during an entire year for its population growth rate to be reduced to zero.
But the good news is that the invasive fish happens to be delicious, with a delicate white meat tasting similar to a snapper or grouper.
Lionfish are native to the Pacific Ocean, but have established themselves from North Carolina to South America. Scientists and public officials are seriously concerned at the effect lionfish are having on reef ecosystems, since this predator is capable of rapid population growth and outcompeting native fish for food and territory.
They are a popular aquarium fish that were likely first released in Florida waters in the mid-1980s. Since then, the species has spread rapidly.
“This study offers us the first target for fishing and other local control efforts such as fishing derbies that feature the lionfish,” says Lad Akins, director of operations for the Reef Environmental and Education Foundation, an organization of divers and marine enthusiasts who are working to combat the lionfish problem.
Authorities are also encouraging a local market for the species with their new “Eat Lionfish” campaign, bringing together fishing communities, wholesalers, and chefs in an effort to broaden U.S. consumers’ awareness of this delicious invader.
While the study represents a significant step forward in understanding how to turn the tide of the invasion, the study’s authors warn that more work is needed to understand the ecological effects of lionfish, track the population, and develop control strategies.
“Lionfish represent the first reef fish invader to become established in the Atlantic, but as we know from history, invasive species are a persistent problem,” says Dr. James Morris, a marine ecologist with NOAA’s Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research. “Understanding the factors involved in the spread of lionfish may help us be better prepared for future invasions.”
The study’s recommendation of a 27 percent monthly reduction represents a major fishing effort which may not be feasible in some areas, such as the expansive areas where lionfish have become established off the southeast U.S. coast, but which may be possible in areas where lionfish habitat is more constrained.
(See also “Eat Lionfish” campaign PDF)