The Invasive Red Lionfish

Beautiful, Disastrous And Delicious!



Lionfish, or in science speak Pterois volitans. We hear more and more about these “nuisance” fish seemingly every day and how they are hurting the reefs. This pesky little teleost has quickly invaded our waters and made a household name for itself. But just how much do you really know about them?

Originating from the Indo-Pacific region the lionfish likely made its way to the Western Atlantic and Caribbean either through irresponsible aquarium owners releasing them, or via ballast water of ships. They are considered an invasive species, which means they are non-native and are likely to cause harm to the economy, environment or human health. It has been stated that invasive species are the second leading cause of the extinction of fish worldwide! So this is no small issue.

Typically you’ll find them in lagoons and reefs out to depths of 50m. A solitary species they tend to hide during the day preferring hunting at night where they feed on small fish, shrimp, and crab. And of course there are the infamous venomous dorsal spines, of which they have 13! The venom in lionfish is a neurotoxin and causes a variety of unpleasant symptoms from mild reactions such as swelling to cardiovascular, neuromuscular, cytolytic problems and severe pain and paralysis in the extremities.

One of the greatest concerns with the invasion of the lionfish species are the effects they have on the food web. The lionfish can upset an entire ecosystem by releasing opposition and creating an increased mortality among species from predation. They can also produce direct competition for resources (like prey) thus limiting that resource and potentially edging out the native species. This can cause a trophic cascade, which has been seen in other areas through a decrease in large sharks, rays, jacks, and some birds followed by the increase in lionfish! That’s right, this little guy sends ripples all the way up the food chain which can have devastating effects!



Management of lionfish will be made more difficult by their ability to live in highly diverse and wide-ranging habitats, by rapid currents, which carry larvae great distances, and by jurisdictional limitations of the management regimes. There have been a few management regimes put in place for lionfish such as those in Bermuda and the Bahamas. Bermuda started a lionfish removal program that includes training, licenses, and allowing commercial and recreational spearing. The Bahamian government founded a lionfish kill order to fishermen as well as conducted educational sessions to promote lionfish as food. In South Florida there has been an early detection and rapid response program implemented that employs and organizes resources from over thirty local organizations. These models and programs are being shown at workshops around the Caribbean in hopes of serving as a first line of defense.

If this problem is to be curtailed and the spread is to be limited then action needs to be taken and programs put into place for the removal of these animals. Programs such as these should include public education on the species including their biology, dangers, and risk to the environment. The programs should also encourage fisherman and others to remove these animals when they are spotted. Given the high reproduction rates and lack of natural predators if the spread of lionfish is not addressed now it may be too late to effectively manage with any real success.



One of the best weapons we have on our side however is just how delicious this fish is! I am here to tell you that these little bastards have meat that compares to the best filet of grouper you’ll find. So if you’re going diving or snorkeling, bring a spear and a pair of surgical shears. The venom is only in the upper 2/3 of the spine so there is no risk of damaging the succulent meat by cutting them off! Start asking for it at your favorite seafood restaurants. It was once said that the fastest way to kill off a fish population is to create a fishery for it. So let’s drive up demand so high the supply can’t keep up! For once we can use our glutinous consumerist culture for good. We did it to the Chilean Sea Bass and Atlantic Cod; lets do it to the dammed lionfish!

Here’s a video on how to clean one up for dinner:

Do you have a lionfish story? Share it with us! 


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