In the June 2018 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, Jeff MacGregor writes, “The lionfish have invaded, but a ragtag army of divers and chefs are fighting back. Those waging the war against this devastating wave of the venomous species have taken on an ‘eat ‘em to beat ’em’ approach.” Here are just a few excerpts from this fascinating article, which includes spectacular photographs by Ben Lowy, and an excellent, related piece by Daniel Fernández, “Please Pass the Invasive,” which focuses on chefs and businesses (like Whole Foods) committed to the consumption of lionfish for a cause.
[. . .] How they got here no one really knows. Like giant shoulder pads and the music of Frank Stallone, some things about the 1980s remain inexplicable. The arrival in American waters of the lionfish is one of these mysteries. There are a couple of recurring stories, but they don’t really add up to a truth. The first is that some home aquarium owner emptied a few of them into the ocean one night—the narrative equivalent of the New York City alligator-down-the-toilet story. Another story suggests a big resort hotel in the Caribbean mishandled the filtration setup on its giant destination aquarium and pumped them out into the sea. Or that a breeding pair escaped during Hurricane Andrew. Maybe they arrived here in the water ballast of big cargo ships from the Pacific.
Now they’re everywhere. Like locust. That’s the bad news. The lionfish has Florida in a noose, and from Mobile, Alabama, to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, the lionfish is a blight, a plague, an epidemic. A perfect evolutionary machine for eating and ruin, every lion-fish is the lace-collared cutthroat in your underwater Elizabethan costume drama.
The good news? Lionfish is delicious.
Before we get to the marine biology, this has to be said: The lionfish is one of the most beautiful animals alive. With its bold stripes and extravagant fins, its regal bearing and magisterial stillness, every lionfish is a hand-lacquered 11th-century Japanese fan. It is a diva, a glamourpuss, a showoff. If you ran a hedge fund in Greenwich or Geneva or Tokyo, the first fish you’d buy for that 100,000-gallon aquarium in your lobby would be a lionfish. It is in every respect spectacular. And in this hemisphere it is an eco-killer, a destroyer of worlds.
Four-hundred-twenty-two words of marine biology boilerplate, a NOAA cribsheet, and a warning:
In the southeast U.S. and Caribbean coastal waters the lionfish is an invasive species. It competes for food and space with overfished native populations. Scientists fear lionfish will kill off helpful locals such as algae-eating parrotfish, allowing seaweed to overtake coral reefs already stressed by rising water temperatures and bleaching. Lionfish kill off other small cleaner-fish, too, which increases the risk of infection and disease among sport fish and cash fishery populations. In U.S. waters, lionfish stocks continue to grow and increase in range. Lionfish have no known predators here and reproduce all year long; a mature female lionfish releases roughly two million eggs a year, which are then widely dispersed by ocean currents. [. . .]
Lionfish are eating machines. They are active hunters that ambush their prey by using their outstretched pectoral fins to corner them. If lionfish are unable to adapt to declines in their prey, their population might decrease.
[. . .] And that’s how we all wound up in this little boat at the Lionfish World Championship. One of dozens of lionfish rodeos or derbies or hunts around the state, events like this are the first line of defense against the lionfish takeover. The premise is simple: Whoever spears the most lionfish wins. Sponsored by Coast Watch Alliance and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Reef Rangers, the Gulf Coast Lionfish Coalition, and about a dozen others, over the last few years this tournament has cleaned thousands of lionfish out of the local ecosystem. In 2016 alone it brought in more than 8,000 fish—in a weekend. I’m here to watch one of five or six teams kill every lionfish it sees. [. . .]
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