Pensacola diver Shea Lowe sat down with us recently to discuss his personal experiences with Lionfish. He described the predators as “wreaking havoc” on ecosystems. He feels that Lionfish’s removal falls solely on divers and education about their infestation is centered on word of mouth. Many divers in addition to Shea also feel the issue isn’t taken as seriously as it needs to be, and those not local to the area most likely haven’t heard of Lionfish.
For many who haven’t heard of them, this species originated in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans with the most common area being Micronesia. Their primary goal is to gorge themselves on everything they can find as they are non-selective feeders. Lionfish took to the Gulf of Mexico in the mid-1980s, from either hurricanes or illegal release. The problem worsened over time to 2010 where the number reached detrimental levels. Their reproductive rate of 12,000 to 15,000 eggs being released every 4 days is practically impossible to get ahead of. With 18 venomous spines, Lionfish were able to corner the market on smaller fish and had virtually no natural predators of their own. Some studies suggest a single lionfish can reduce a population by 79% in just 5 weeks. For any local fisherman, those numbers are pretty scary.
Divers catch lionfish by diving down with a short spear to stab the lionfish and stuff them into a “ZooKeeper” — a plastic tube that protects divers from the venomous spines. Lionfish are rarely caught on hook and line, and efforts to catch them in traps or nets have been largely ineffective. Diving for lionfish is grueling work, often involving teams of divers and long days on the water. To date, catching a Lionfish does not require a fishing license of any kind nor is there a daily bag limit and harvest season is year round. There have been studies to suggest the best method for population control is through targeted removal efforts. Which is why supporting people like Shea Lowe and other local divers is important.
When asked about the market for selling them, Shea felt the sources to sell are there but the fish aren’t. Initially the shift to sell Lionfish to restaurants and at fish markets seemed ingenious but once the idea actually caught on, divers’ ability to catch them was not equating to the demand of what was needed. After significant efforts, such as tournaments, were made to eradicate this species, the numbers have changed from seeing hundreds in one spot to seeing anywhere between 5-50 depending on the location and the day. Shea mentioned that when he dives, if he is to catch between 80-100 pounds, he would most likely keep it instead of selling to a restaurant because it’s such a small amount, it would
be too insignificant to meet the numbers of what a restaurant would need. Shea did state the flavor and texture of Lionfish is highly preferable to other fish he’s had. The meat itself has a firm texture and light taste, which makes it ideal for tons of recipes.
We recommend everyone do their part in helping to lower the population of Lionfish by grabbing a spear and getting to diving. If you aren’t able to do that, whenever you see Lionfish at the store buy it, cook with it, and let us know how it was!
Try Shea’s personal favorite – Lionfish Ceviche
2 lbs lionfish fillets
1 cup lime juice- approximately 7 large limes
1/4 tsp lime zest
1 tbsp white vinegar
1 red onion, thinly sliced
1-2 jalapeno or Serrano pepper, diced (depending on how spicy you like!)
2 medium sized tomatoes, diced
1 large bunch cilantro, chopped
2 avocados, diced
Fresh ground pepper, to taste
Sea salt, to taste
2 pounds lionfish (skinned, boned and cleaned) cut into 1-ounce strips
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 eggs, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons cold water
2 cups fine panko bread crumbs
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil, for frying
1/2 head purple cabbage, finely shredded
1 bunch cilantro, leaves picked
1 bunch chives, chopped
3 limes, cut into wedges for garnish
Cotija cheese crumbled (optional)
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Alex Fog – Marine Resources Coordinator for Okaloosa County