Tideland News Writer
While the jumbo Asian tiger shrimp has attracted the lion’s share of publicity among invasive marine species in North Carolina in recent weeks, the poisonous lionfish is rightfully growling for attention, too.
In fact, according to Dr. James Morris, a NOAA ecologist at the agency’s Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research on Pivers Island in Beaufort, lionfish populations in waters off North Carolina are rapidly increasing, as they are elsewhere in the South Atlantic and in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea.
Experts think lionfish – long popular as an aquarium fish – were most likely introduced to Atlantic and Caribbean waters from Florida in the mid-1980s. The numbers and density of the invasive species – first spotted in North Carolina waters in 2000 – have grown so much that NOAA is encouraging fishermen, chefs and consumers to catch, prepare and eat lionfish, which reportedly have delicate white flesh with a texture and taste like grouper or snapper.
While it might seem counterintuitive to chow down on a poisonous fish, experts point out that only the spines – anal, dorsal and pelvic – of the species are venomous, and the venom is deactivated by heat. As a result, the danger is confined to those who harvest the fish and prepare it for consumption.
NOAA recommends that those who handle the fish wear heavy gloves. Do-it-yourself lionfish catcher/consumers should remove the spines with kitchen shears or clippers. Once that is done, the fish can be cleaned like any other. Some consumers prefer them filleted, but others like them pan-fried whole.
A wide variety of recipes are available on the Internet. You can adapt almost any snapper or grouper recipe but the fish do well simmered in sauce, and popular side dishes include boiled potatoes, rice and pilaf.
However, you eat them, you’ll doing the hard-bottom and reef marine ecosystems a favor, Morris said, because lionfish can, and in some cases already have, altered the ecosystems into which they’ve spread in the Caribbean and Florida, if not yet the Atlantic.
In the Caribbean, some island nations are so interested in reducing or eliminating the population of the fish that they’ve started yearlong lionfish tournaments, with cash prizes for the most lionfish caught.
The same ecological impacts are possible along the South Atlantic if the population continues to expand.
Locally, Morris said, lionfish have been caught both inshore and offshore, including at the Cape Lookout rock jetty, and by a variety of methods, including channel nets and hook-and-line. Fish traps also sometimes catch them. The offshore population here seems consistent and growing, while inshore sightings and catches are more sporadic but certainly no longer rare.
It’s a year-round population here, although Morris said North Carolina is the northern end of the fish’s current range.
Divers increasingly encounter the fish, and some of them bring them back, either to eat or as samples for researchers.
“Managers (of fisheries and reef systems) are very concerned about the ecological impacts” of the lionfish population explosion, Morris said. “They can affect biodiversity, and have significantly altered the ecology of reef systems” in the Caribbean.
It’s entirely possible – but not yet a certainty – that if nothing is done, lionfish could have major impacts on the populations of snapper and grouper, a big recreational and commercial fishery off North Carolina.
Morris called the “eat lionfish” campaign a good idea.
“It’s a viable concept” to reduce the population,” he said. “There are reports that it has already had an impact on density of the fish in the Bahamas.”
It’s not yet known, Morris said, whether lionfish can “out-compete” snapper and grouper for food, but research into the complex issue is ongoing, as are educational efforts.
At any rate, scientists are concerned enough that NOAA launched the “Eat Lionfish” campaign in June as an effort to quell the rising population of the fish, which is native to the western Pacific, feeds voraciously on young snapper and grouper and has no natural predators in its relatively new home.
In roughly a decade, NOAA experts say, the fish, in some areas, has numerically surpassed native species, with some estimates running as high as 1,000 fish per acre.
As a result, according to NOAA’s website, “approximately 27 percent of mature lionfish would have to be removed monthly for one year to reduce its population growth rate to zero.”
So far, Morris doesn’t know of any North Carolina restaurants that that offer lionfish on the menu. Part of the reason, he said, is that the highest densities of the fish – where it would be commercially viable to catch and then sell them – is generally in deep water 25 to 30 miles offshore.
Jimmy Phillips, owner of Clyde Phillips Seafood in Swansboro, said no one had brought a lionfish to his business yet. However, he said, if someone did, he’d most likely try to sell it, given that the fish are said to be tasty and officials are encouraging the use of the species.
The fish have showed up on menus in bigger cities, including Washington, D.C.
Morris said at least one area dive shop is looking into the possibility harvesting the fish off reefs or other hard-bottom areas during diving trips. Fish caught and sold could be a way to offset fuel costs and help reduce the “carbon footprint” of the dive trips.
NOAA and others suggest that those who try to catch lionfish exercise caution. Clear vinyl collection nets with mesh bottoms or fish spears with paralyzer tips are ideal. One good method is to deploy one vinyl net behind the fish while using a second net to maneuver the fish into the first net.
Anyone stung by a lionfish spine should seek medical attention as quickly as possible. Check for and remove obvious pieces of spine left in the wound, then apply water, as hot as you can stand it without scalding, until the pain subsides. Common symptoms include pain and swelling. In some extreme cases, skin necrosis and paralysis can occur.