As a visitor to any Caribbean island these days you must have heard people making a fuss about lionfish. But it’s such a beautiful creature; you might have wondered why locals are so hell-bent on destroying it. After all, it’s just a little fish, right? Wrong!
Though there are many explanations as to how it got into Caribbean waters, one thing for certain is that lionfish simply do not belong here. They belong in the Indo-Pacific waters and the Red Sea where they are an important part of the ecological chain. They got here due to man-made error, and it appears that they will have to be removed by man as well since – on this side of the globe - they have no natural predators. And though they ARE pretty to look at and a favorite of exotic fish collectors, the damage they are causing to the reefs from Florida, throughout the Caribbean and right down to South America has reached epic proportions.
Masters at camouflage and formidable in defense - lionfish have 18 venom-tipped spines to protect themselves against enemies - their numbers are basically left to grow at will since nothing considers them food. And grow they do! One female lionfish can lay up to two million eggs per year, and their egg sacs have a chemical that keeps other fish from eating them. Lionfish born here must consider themselves very lucky to be living in an all-you-can-eat 24/7 seafood buffet without anything else looking to eat them! And they have voracious appetites.
Lionfish can devour twice their weight at a sitting and their stomachs can stretch up to 30 times their normal size. And they’re not picky eaters, either. They consume over 70 different fish species, invertebrates and mollusks. In fact, one single lionfish can wipe out the entire marine life around its territory reef in as little as five weeks. Left unchecked, this invasive lionfish population will quite simply eat the reef bare and deplete native fish populations to the point that people who depend upon the sea for their livelihood will also lose their way of life. And lionfish are also dangerous to humans.
Though a lionfish sting is not fatal, the venom will cause such burning pain once it enters your bloodstream that you might feel like you want to die! And the cure is almost as painful as the injury. The only way to alleviate the pain is to immerse the affected area into water as hot as you can handle it without scalding yourself for a whopping 30-90 minutes!
Eat ‘Em to Beat ‘Em!
But the good news is that lionfish taste great. And they’re good for you, too! Rich in omega-3 and lighter and flakier than grouper or tilapia, lionfish meat is making its way into all kinds of gourmet dishes like ceviche! REEF has even come out with a lionfish cookbook!
Castro Perez of the Aruba Marine Park Foundation says, “Safety of our visitors underwater is of utmost importance; we don’t want anyone touching or hunting lionfish without proper training. But everyone can help eradicate this scourge by contributing to above-water efforts like our fundraisers and events and by asking restaurants to put lionfish on the menu.”
And there is a superb event coming up this weekend on Aruba! The very first Sunset Lionfish and Wine Tasting Fundraiser will take place at Nos Clubhuis on Hadicurari Beach, Sunday November 30th from 6pm-8pm. Tickets can be purchased at the Jolly Pirates gift shop. Wine is to be supplied by Romar Trading Company, and lionfish meat to be supplied by Aruba’s Volunteer Lionfish Hunters. Chefs from some of Aruba’s finest dining spots will also be on hand to create interesting dishes. And don’t forget to ask your favorite Aruba restaurant if they have a lionfish special!
(If you see a lionfish while underwater, report its location to the Aruba Marine Park Foundation at: 747-7227.)
Photo courtesy of Aruba Marine Park Foundation