Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific and are not a nuisance species in the reef ecosystems where they reside there. However, the same cannot be said of lionfish living in the Atlantic, and especially those living off the Florida panhandle. Lionfish are not native to the Atlantic and have become an invasive species there. It is thought that they entered this novel ecosystem via release by aquarists in the 1980’s. In the few decades since their release, their numbers have increased dramatically. This has had devastating effects on reef ecosystems, including reducing the abundance of native fish species like snapper, wrasses, and flounder. Furthermore, through their predation and depletion of native, herbivorous fishes, algae has begun to proliferate and overgrow coral reefs. This drastically alters the paradigm since algal-dominated reefs don’t offer the myriad ecosystem benefits that coral reefs do. It is not known why lionfish numbers have burgeoned in the Atlantic, but yet remained constant in the Indo-Pacific. Nonetheless, what is known is that their rapid growth and voracious appetites are having deleterious effects along numerous reefs in the Florida coast.
One issue with lionfish is that they seemingly have no predators in their new coastal homes. Part of this may be due to the fact that their body is covered with long, poisonous spines that keep them well protected from prospective predators. They also have incredible reproductive capabilities as they can produce anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 eggs every four days! Additionally, they don’t respond to fishing bait and so are extremely difficult to catch using traditional fishing methods. Plus, they eat a lot and just about whatever they can catch (they aren’t exactly picky predators). Thus it can be pretty easy to understand why and how they have become, in a very short span of time, such a pervasive problem. However, there is one method of fishing that works quite well on them, and that method is spearfishing. Yes, there are some who go spearfishing for this exotic invasive! In fact, a few years ago, Ryan Chadwick, an entrepreneur and restauranteur, began spearfishing for lionfish in the hopes of selling them at his own restaurant and to any other restaurants interested in purchasing some of his catch. At first it may sound like this venture was money driven, but the idea actually began during his time in the Bahamas. While on a monthly diving trip in 2009 he noticed that there was a sharp decline in multiple fish species in the area and this was believed by the locals to be largely attributed to the impact of lionfish. During his time in the Caribbean he also noticed that there were some restaurants that successfully sold lionfish as simply another meal on the menu. These two circumstances serendipitously spawned both his desire to help raise awareness of the detrimental impact that invasive lionfish are having on marine ecosystems, and his idea to do this by putting them on restaurant menus and grocery shelves. Sometimes a little outside the box thinking is needed every now again in our world of ever-expanding environmental issues.
Determined to get this destructive fish out of the water and onto the menu, Chadwick launched a lionfish distribution company called Norman’s Lionfish. Rather than continuing to catch them himself, he now hires divers so he can focus more on the marketing and distribution side of things. This has helped open up the market for other restaurants to purchase and begin selling lionfish. In fact, the idea of consuming lionfish has become popular enough that even Whole Foods is now one of his customers. If it tastes great, is reasonably priced, and can be advertised as an environmentally conscious food choice, then there is no reason that this exotic cuisine can’t eventually become a common seafood commodity with the likes of salmon and grouper. Although, the one caveat with lionfish is that consuming it is actually a boon to the environment. Whereas fish like salmon and grouper are being overfished and their rapid declines have had adverse impacts on their native ecosystems, the consumption of lionfish and reduction of their numbers in the wild would be extremely beneficial to the non-native, coastal ecosystems of Florida and beyond. In a time when a vast majority of seafood is harvested unsustainably, the allure of choosing to consume a fish that is a highly sustainable choice for numerous reasons might help draw new customers in, especially as common knowledge about them grows. Also, the name “lionfish” does kind of jump off the menu as daring food choice.
I think the majority of people, regardless of how they feel about the environment, are well aware of the declining state of our aquatic ecosystems. And make no mistake, encouraging the extensive fishing of any fish species is not something I would normally champion or encourage. However, in the case of lionfish I believe that it could become a way to help mitigate some of the many issues that this invasive species are causing. I mean sometimes protecting the environment manifests itself in different forms, and that is what really drew me to this story. It is possible to make a profit and conserve the environment at the same time, much like ecotourism does. In the efforts of Ryan Chadwick, I believe we see one of those situations. For instance, during an interview he stated, “The mission is not to make as much money as possible … It’s more about a passion to do something you want to do … and two years ago the idea was to start a lionfish distribution business from scratch and that’s what we did.” While spearfishing alone might not reduce lionfish numbers enough to make a drastic difference, the distribution and sale of this fish can be used as an avenue to bring awareness to the problem and hopefully help initiate new ideas for how to control them. Although, who knows, maybe in time the lionfish market will grow to the point that it effectively regulates their numbers. Only time will tell.
What are some unconventional methods you have seen or heard of for protecting aquatic ecosystems?
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