The Caribbean has been the focus of a growing invasion since 1985. And we’re talking lionfish that are the intruders into our waters.
If you aren’t aware of the devastation these magnificent-looking fish with the prodigious appetites are causing, let me explain.
I first noticed these fish through a buddy who was operating a dive boat out of Trujillo, Honduras. With my wife Charlene, we spent a day minding the boat topside, while he, his partner, and a friend dove a wreck spearing lionfish. They came up with nets full of lionfish with spines still attached – they had forgotten to take scissors down to cut them off before stuffing them in the catch bag.
When we arrived back, the sea was becoming choppy, so leaving the boat was a challenge. Without a dock, we had to jump into the shallow water before wading up to the beach.
As Charlene was standing to get off, a large wave hit us causing her to stumble and head towards the bag of fish with their exposed needles. Lucky for her, I caught her and prevented her from getting stung.
As we later found out, the venom of the lionfish, contained in an array of up to 18 needle-like dorsal fins, can cause a mighty sting.
Although agony to humans, causing nausea and breathing difficulties in some, a lionfish sting is rarely fatal. Fortunately, we never discovered if Charlene would be more affected than others.
Later that evening, our friends cooked up a tasty feast of fried lionfish fillets.
A little sweet-tasting, with a texture like a halibut, I never ate a fish as good (other than salmon) and it’s now my favorite fish dinner here in Honduras. It aroused my interest in who these lovely looking fish are.
What are lionfish?
Originating in Indonesia, in 1985 they extended out from Florida into the Caribbean.
No-one’s sure how they arrived in the Caribbean but theories abound: released by accident from a marine aquarium when Hurricane Andrew hit; carried in the ballast of cruise ships, which emptied their water once in a Florida port; home aquarium owners dumping them in the toilet or ocean.
They are ravaging the reefs of Honduras and causing tremendous damage to its ecosystem. As lionfish originate outside the Caribbean, they have no natural predators, crowding out local fish and with a remarkable breeding ability – an individual female can produce two million eggs in a year – three to four times that of native fish species.
And they can eat up to 30 times their stomach volume in a single day!
The good news is that lionfish are tasty eating. They are good for you, too, with higher concentrations of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, scoring higher than snapper, grouper, tilapia, wahoo, mahi-mahi, Bluefin tuna, and others. And they’re low in metals like mercury and lead.
What is being done to control them?
On Roatan, Honduras, local divers are attempting to give sharks a taste for the alien reef species. The idea is if lionfish become prey to sharks, in time they may be kept under control as a part of the ecosystem.
While efforts to tame Florida’s invasive lionfish haven’t worked, now these fish with their insatiable appetites are devouring each other – although the chances are that won’t diminish their numbers much.
The best way yet found to reduce their population: EAT THEM!
If you see them on the menu in Honduras, try them. Here in Trujillo, both Mermaids (at Campo Del Mar) and Nautico (on the main beach road) serve lionfish whenever available. Mermaids serve a super tasty beer-battered lionfish and chips.
And at the fish market, pick up some fillets or whole fish. The white, buttery meat is perfect for everything. They are delicious, well worth your effort to try regardless of how dangerous their venomous spines may look. Try them fried, baked, as ceviche, all are excellent (and safe).
You won’t regret it!
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Paul McCurdy is a part-time resident of Trujillo, Honduras since 1996. He and his wife Charlene delight in sharing their experiences of Honduras on their Hola Honduras blog and on their Facebook page.