The lion’s share – country roads magazine chest pain tightness

A piscine Pac-Man wearing a disguise of jaw-dropping beauty is devouring our fish and wrecking offshore coral reefs by creating ecosystem havoc. The red lionfish, a reef fish, a.k.a. Pterois volitans, zebrafish, turkeyfish, firefish, and butterfly cod, has so successfully invaded the western Atlantic along America’s east coast, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea that it is too late to make it pack its fishy bags and return to the Indo-Pacific area from whence it came.

The lionfish’s aggressive invasion is inexcusably ruthless, but humans are to blame for importing the exotic species as a star attraction for aquariums. Some owners—once they tired of caring for a fish that cannibalizes tank mates—dumped the fiends off American shores. Further clouding the waters, seawater ballast released by ships may harbor lionfish stowaways.


The first reported sighting of the invader in 1985 was off Florida’s coast near Dania Beach, and the fish was out of the bag, so to speak. In 1992, six lionfish allegedly fled a shattered private outdoor Florida aquarium during Hurricane Andrew, and the invasion began in earnest. As an invader, lionfish put Attila the Hun to shame. Their ranks swell as they reproduce with gusto; larvae mature fast and ride ocean currents to spread like wildfire; they prey efficiently on native fish that see the new fish on the block as neither predator nor prey. As a result, the population entrenched on the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Brazil and in both the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea is estimated to grow sixty-seven percent per year as native species decline. In ten years, they spread over a million square miles.

As an invader, lionfish put Attila the Hun to shame. Their ranks swell as they reproduce with gusto; larvae mature fast and ride ocean currents to spread like wildfire; they prey efficiently on native fish that see the new fish on the block as neither predator nor prey.

“Know thine enemy” to fight this usurper of waters and coral reefs who gorges on our seafood before we can. His length averages ten to twelve inches, but can reach sixteen inches, weighing up to 2.6 pounds and reaching about a foot in height. A member of the Scorpaenidae family, his rich reddish brown and creamy white stripes and spots warn predators of toxicity. Thirteen dagger-sharp spines with venomous glands spread like a lion’s mane from the large, black-spotted, bristly dorsal fin, along with a spine on each side in the fan-shaped pectoral fins and three in the anal fin. The spines deliver a potent potion of protein, neuromuscular toxin, and neurotransmitter. The sting, though not fatal to healthy adults, is “like a wasp times ten,” a diver told CBS News. Victims suffer from chills, cramps, nausea, swelling, sharp throbbing pain, and breathing distress. Hot water denatures the toxins, but pain may last for days. Used for defense, venom is not wasted on divers who ignore lionfish, but beware the “spines forward” threat. The sharp spines intermingle with soft, feathery rays that produce an ethereal yet gaudy aura and send a mixed message.

This predator hunts actively in the half-light of dawn and dusk, wiggling fleshy tentacles over his eyes and under his wide mouth to lure into his jaws at least fifty species of sea creatures, from tiny crustaceans to small juvenile fish to fish two-thirds as long as he. His stomach stretches to thirty times its normal size as he dines. He eats marine cleanup crews that consume parasites, disease-carrying organisms, and algae, raising coral reef risks. He devours the young of commercially sought tuna, grouper, snapper, shrimp, and crabs at a rate of twenty small fry in thirty minutes and snares food resources from native species, all while moving slowly and gently undulating his soft rays. This hunter has a bag of tricks and blows jets of water at prey to confuse it, making it change directions to face him so he can swallow it head first. He uses specialized muscles to maintain his position and balance in the water, adjusting his center of gravity to strike. To trap small fish, he reaches out his fanning pectoral fins to herd them into reef holes or against reef walls, gulping them down with a swift strike. Remember the expanding stomach? He can hunt for hours to fill it, since few Atlantic or Caribbean fish hunt the lionfish, who does not look like the prey they have hunted for millennia.

Since lionfish prey without being equally preyed upon and mate year-round in warm waters, the balance of nature is royally skewed. One female lionfish can produce two million (!) eggs per year; one male mates with multiple females. When a female’s eggs are ripe, she turns luminous silver, becoming highly visible. Males, whose stripes darken, gather in groups to leer at the girls and show off. When a female glows, males scuffle and head butt until the best man wins. The female joins him at sunset for a “spawning dance,” and the couple dives to the ocean floor before ascending cheek-to-cheek while circling each other as if waltzing. As they surface, she flirtatiously flutters her pectoral fins and spawns up to thirty thousand eggs encased in one to two floating mucus balls. Her suitor takes aim. Boom! Population explosion! She can produce more eggs in four days, so reproduction continues ad nauseam.

It behooves humans to fix problems we cause. We can research how lionfish are controlled in native habitats but cannot compound the issue by adding native predators to our waters. It seems best to adopt Bermuda’s strategy: “Eat ‘em to beat ‘em.” After spine removal, lionfish can be filleted, leading to white, flaky, delicate, healthful seafood appearing in trendy restaurants. This fish could solve world hunger, but harvesting is difficult. Lionfish do not swim in schools, are not tempted by bait, and are seldom caught on hooks. Living in crevices on coral reefs and in rubble from wrecks, they are hard to net. Trawling is hopeless.

Spear fishing divers are the answer. Lionfish hunting is currently a popular sport, with divers hooking up on Facebook to participate in organized lionfish “derbies” in the Florida Keys, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean as predator becomes prey. Though experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say, “We would have to eat 27% of the total population every month for a year” to halt the invasion, you can do your part without brandishing a spear. Report lionfish sightings to REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation) online at reef.org and seek the meat of the relentlessly sustainable fish in stores and restaurants. If your market doesn’t carry it, start a demand! Let’s eat and prey like lionfish.

Lucile, who lives in Vicksburg by the lionfishless Mississippi River, is planning a Florida seafood trip. In Louisiana, Chef Tenney Flynn at GW Fins in New Orleans has speared a lionfish or two in his time, and Chef Jeffrey Hansell of Oxlot 9 in Covington recruited guests at our April 20 Supper Club into the fight by serving an impeccable Citrus-Cured Lionfish course. Tags Cuisine June 2018 hunting fishing Nature Outdoors