Excerpt from Seafood Lover’s Florida: sidebar: Alien Invasion in Florida’s Waters: Attack of the Lionfish:
The lionfish may be beautiful to look at, and quite tasty to eat, but it doesn’t belong here. They are native primarily to the southern Pacific and Indian Oceans, and also the Red Sea. Lionfish began showing up off Florida’s Atlantic coast in the mid-1980’s, and by 2000 the population had grown dramatically, spreading into the Gulf of Mexico. Venomous barbs along their dorsal and pelvic fins protect them from predators, so they multiply unchecked. As an invasive species they are voracious consumers of bait fish that native species, like snapper and grouper, survive on. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission actively encourages people to remove them wherever they are found in Florida waters, mostly around reefs. If you decide to do your part and try to catch one, beware the barbs! In the spirit of doing their part to eradicate these rascals, some restaurants are now cooking and serving lionfish, often as the special of the day. I tried lionfish for the first time at Tamara’s Café in Apalachicola (see photo above). They served it pan-fried whole and it was delicious. Lionfish has a light, flaky meat, similar to snapper or sea bass.
Where do non-native species come from, and how do they get here? Florida, perhaps more than any other state, has a long history of invading species. The Cuban tree frog arrived here in 1931. They were stowaways in the packing material in boxes arriving by boat from Cuba. These guys prey on the smaller native Florida tree frogs. Their population grew rapidly throughout South Florida and they are still here today. In the late 1960’s walking catfish began strutting about in South Florida, and by the 1970’s had made their way up to central Florida. Yes, walking catfish do walk on land. Green iguanas from Central and South American began showing up on Florida’s west coast in the 1960’s. By the late 1970’s the island of Boca Grande was overrun by them. Now Boca Grande traps and removes them. Today iguanas are common in South Florida and particularly in the Keys. While iguanas are not particularly dangerous, there are other more recent invaders that are. Nile monitor lizards, some the length of medium-size alligators, are showing up in South Florida, and ten-to-twelve foot long Burmese pythons have invaded the Everglades, as well as the greater Miami area. Iguanas likely arrived on boats from Central and South America, but monitor lizard and python populations originated with released pets and zoo escapes. Some invasive species are not so noticeable. The zebra mussel, and now the green mussel, arrived via ballast water from overseas ships.
Lionfish are an especially troublesome invasive species because they are so resilient. Although they are most commonly found in shallow reefs, they also have been found thriving at depths of 1000 feet. And they are prodigious reproducers: the female lionfish releases egg masses of 12,000 to 15,000 eggs, which can float and drift for three or four weeks. Lionfish can spawn every four days in warmer climates. Adults grow to twelve-to-fifteen inches, which doesn’t sound very big but they routinely attack and consume other fish that are more than half their size. They stalk their prey and corral them into a corner, and then attack. Smaller snapper, grouper, parrotfish, and shrimp are common victims.
While we’ve been able to trace the sources of many other non-native creatures, how lionfish came here remains a mystery. They first showed up off Florida’s Atlantic Coast near Dania Beach in 1985, and now are found throughout the southern Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. The vast majority are Red Lionfish (Pterois Volitans for you technical types). They are actually quite striking to look at. They have bold vertical red and white zebra stripes and feather-like fins that extend out twice the size of their body. But their pretty appearance is a deception. These guys are wreaking havoc in Florida’s waters.
So what is being done about them? First, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, along with a variety of other organizations, are actively educating the public about lionfish, and coming up with ways to reduce their population. Florida Fish and Wildlife has waved any fishing license requirement for catching lionfish with a pole spear, or “Hawaiian sling”. They want us to catch as many as we can. The only exception is in no-fishing-allowed preserve areas. Lionfish don’t bite hooked bait very often, so they are best caught by spearfishing or with dipping nets, but if you do try to catch them with a rod and reel you do need a saltwater fishing license. Florida Fish and Wildlife also encourages and issues permits for lionfish fishing tournaments or “derbies”. These have caught on. In 2015 there were thirty-one Florida lionfish derbies, from Pensacola down to the Keys.