Invasion of the Lionfish

Voracious, venomous lionfish are the first exotic species to invade coral reefs. Now divers, fishermen—and cooks—are fighting back

Unknown in the Americas 30 years ago, lionfish have multiplied at a rate that is almost unheard of in marine history. (Visuals Unlimited / Corbis)

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He uses Chevron traps, 5-foot by 5.5-foot wire cages shaped like arrowheads, at 20 test stations. "I came up with the idea because we got reports that lionfish were going into lobster traps in Bermuda and in the Bahamas," Norris says. The traps captured at least three or four lionfish each, sometimes capturing significantly more lionfish than any other species. Norris says he has to do more research into the issue of "bycatch," the unintended trapping of other species, before divers can start using the Chevron traps in the fight against invasive lionfish.

"When I started I didn't have any idea that lionfish would even go in a trap, so just identifying trapping is a huge accomplishment," Norris says. It will be another two years before Norris refines his trapping technique, but if he does, the traps could be used to capture large numbers of lionfish in areas where scuba divers and spear-fishers don't normally go.

Fishermen in the Bahamas have come up with their own approach to combating lionfish, one that pits man against fish.

In April 2008, nearly 200 people came to the headquarters of the Bahamas National Trust, the organization responsible for managing the country's parks and wildlife sanctuaries, to watch Alexander Maillis cook a lionfish on live local morning television. With his bare hands, Maillis extracted a lionfish from a pile at his side and demonstrated how to slice off the poisonous spines. Local fishermen came up and touched the fish. Later, everyone at the program tasted a slice of pan-fried lionfish.

Maillis works as a lawyer but comes from a family of commercial fishermen. The Maillis family traces its origin to Greece, and this heritage is what first gave Alexander the idea to serve lionfish in the Bahamas.

"Greeks in the Mediterranean have been eating lionfish for years with no ill effects," Maillis says. Lionfish are not native to the Mediterranean, either. Members of Pterois miles, the less common species in the Atlantic invasion, invaded the Mediterranean sometime in the 1980s via the Suez Canal. "And it's a highly prized panfish in the Pacific Rim." Together with a cousin who is also a fisherman, Maillis taught himself how to handle and cook a lionfish. He learned that if he sliced off the venomous dorsal and anal fins, or if he cooked the fish at high temperatures, the lionfish became harmless. Lionfish flesh isn't poisonous, and heat neutralizes the spines' toxins.

Maillis says that his friends were doubtful about his new dish until he cut open a lionfish stomach and showed them the nine baby parrotfish and three small shrimp inside it. Seeing such a vast number of young prey inside a single fish illustrated what a voracious predator the lionfish could be. Now Maillis' friends are on board. One of them got so swept up that when he later spotted a lionfish in the water off the beach, he rigged a spear from an umbrella and a knife, stabbed the lionfish, and cooked the fish for his family.

"We realized that the only way to check the invasion is to get people to start killing lionfish," Maillis says. "If you can find a use for the fish, all the better."

About Anika Gupta
Anika Gupta

Anika Gupta’s writing has appeared in India and the United States, including in Business Today magazine, where she served as its first digital content editor, the Hindustan Times newspaper and Smithsonian magazine. Currently, she is a Master's student at MIT, where she studies user-generated content and mainstream media culture. She's also a science writer, media blogger, and essayist.

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