While fishing in 150-feet of water with a group of anglers last weekend, Brad Neuendank slowly cranked a fish from the bottom. When it hit the surface, he let out a, "what is this?"
"That's a lionfish," I replied, quickly followed by, "don't touch it!"
As reports of the invasive lionfish prevail across the Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean, they are now becoming a common sight in the Gulf of Mexico.
The population of the venomous fish has spread like wildfire since their first wild spotting off southeast Florida. They've been seen as far north as Long Island, east to the US Virgin islands, and now west to Texas. The lionfish population is thought to be as abundant as most native grouper species throughout that range.
A native of the Indo-Pacific region, it is believed that lionfish were released into the wild in the early 90s after being imported as aquarium fish. Lionfish have seen unprecedented growth, and now have become far too common off the Gulf Coast.
They survive well in poor water quality, resist diseases, have no natural predators, and eat just about anything.
Divers are told to exterminate them whenever they are seen. Lionfish hunters and groups dedicated to eliminating them have been popping up around the state. Tournaments and events aimed to kill the most lionfish are attempting to help rid as many as possible from waters they thrive. Local divers rarely saw them a few years ago, now they are spotted on most dives.
Staring at one at the end of the line left a decision, keep it or kill it. I've heard of their great table fair, but the venomous spines were intimidating 50-miles offshore. Between the 13 dorsal, 3 anal, and 2 pelvic spines, the lionfish's defenses are spectacular. We let it die before unhooking and releasing it.
Being stung by a lionfish is a painful experience by all accounts. Occasionally fatal, the sting of a venomous spine will emit intense throbbing, sharp pain, tingling sensations, sweating, and blistering.
As a result of their expansion, lionfish are to be killed before release. Those who keep lionfish note that they are extremely tasty cooked or as sushi, and as a result they should be appearing on restaurant menus where supply is available. Perhaps one of the few positives of the lionfish invasion will be the economic impact they can provide for the sale and serving of lionfish at restaurants.
"We would love to serve them at our restaurants if we could get a fresh supply," says Ed Chiles, owner of the popular Sandbar, Beachhouse, and Mar-Vista seafood restaurants. "I think all of our friends in the business that are doing fresh seafood would do so as well if the supply is there and they are priced to be affordable."
Locally it is difficult to find lionfish on a menu. Around the Florida Keys and Southeast Florida more restaurants are starting to serve lionfish as they dominate the reefs.
While lionfish may never be eliminated from our local ecosystem, it is possible supply and demand could help control the population. If you see it on a menu, give it a try. By all accounts it is delicious to eat, and the more we can eliminate, the better it will be for the future of the Gulf of Mexico.