The lionfish may not be the biggest fish in the Gulf of Mexico, but it certainly is one of the baddest. Don’t let this invasive species’ stunning appearance fool you, the lionfish is a fierce predator equipped with 18 venomous spines. Much like the lion is king of the Savanna, the lionfish can easily be deemed the king of the sea, and it’s wreaking havoc on local waterways and fish populations.
Originally from the Indo-Pacific and Red Sea, the lionfish was introduced to the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico around 2010. By 2012, most of the local reefs, both natural and artificial, were infested with these voracious eaters. Unfortunately, the Lionfish has no known predators in the Gulf of Mexico and they are not easy to catch on a hook. The venomous and spiny fish can not only consume prey up to two-thirds its own size, it can starve itself during harsh conditions for up to 12 weeks. The lionfish is also known to release up to 115,000 eggs into the local waterways as often as every two to three days. To put that into perspective, the average for the same time period is 27,000, based on research from the Gulf Coast Lionfish Coalition. What’s even more unnerving is the number of lionfish in the Gulf of Mexico in unknown.
Well, the simple solution is to catch as many lionfish as possible. From Panama City to Pensacola, divers have come to the front lines, strapping on their SCUBA tanks, spear in hand, bagging as many lionfish as possible.
Given the invasive nature of these fish, the FWC does not enforce a bag limit on how many can be caught, which is good news for anyone trying to combat these underwater pests.
Candy Hansard of the Emerald Coast Reef Association has been outspoken about the dangers of the lionfish for years, whether locally or to state and government officials. The reef association provides free lionfish workshops for groups of 10 or more.
In Pensacola, Lionfish Dive Centers offer divers a chance to be part of the solution. Here are some of the businesses that offer Lionfish charters: Blue Water Adventures(Pensacola), Niuhi Dive Charters(Pensacola), and Florida Dive Pros(Pensacola).
Much like divers, local chefs have joined the lionfish fight by cooking up the spiny, white-fleshed fish. Tim Creehan, of Cuvee 30A and Destin Ice Market 30A, has known about lionfish nuisance for quite some time, as he frequently sails in the British Virgin Islands where the pest has wreaked havoc, even catching the attention of Virgin mogul Richard Branson.
“You cook them like snapper,” Creehan says of the mild, flaky fish. Whether or not the lionfish becomes a menu staple is yet to be determined.
“The key is making it easy to fish, catch and sell to local eateries,” he said. “If I could get a consistent supply, I could add them to the menu. We also need to find a way to bring the cost down to make it attractive to the consumer.”
Shoppers at Whole Foods Market in Destinhave probably seen the lionfish on ice, as the company began selling the fish in its Florida stores in April 2016. David Ventura, regional seafood coordinator for Whole Foods, has been instrumental in bringing the lionfish into stores throughout the state of Florida.
“To date, we’ve sold 27,000 pounds and counting,” Ventura said. And while that’s a large number, Ventura knows it’s only a small dent in the total lionfish population. As a company, Whole Foods has created partnerships with local divers throughout the state, which allows them to consistently offer the fish in its stores.
Outside of the retail markets, locals and visitors alike can do their part at local lionfish events, such as the annual Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day held in May in Pensacola. In 2016, divers removed an astonishing 8,089 lionfish during the two-day event. Lionfish events will also be held in Destin and Panama City.
Residents and visitors alike can help tame the lionfish epidemic by grabbing a skillet and a fork and taking a bite out of this growing problem. For complete list of lionfish events in Northwest Florida, visit myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/lionfish/events/.
Book a Destin Vacation & Join the Fight
As you plan your next Destin vacation, consider joining the fight as a diver, a diner or a festival attendee. We invite you to view Newman-Dailey’s vast section of premier beach vacation rentals online or call one of our friendly vacation specialists at 1-800-225-7652.
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