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Invasive Lionfish Threat to Alabama Marine Species

October 31, 2013

By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

When my daughter asked where I’d been as I walked in the door late the other night, I responded, “Lionfish workshop.”

“That’s the fish that’s poisonous, right?” she asked.

“Nope, the lionfish is venomous, not poisonous,” I said.

Judging from the puzzled look on her face, I needed to explain that lionfish have venomous spines but the fish’s flesh is perfectly edible, in fact, delicious and not poisonous.

That fact is one of the main messages that Keri Kenning of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) tries to relay during the lionfish workshops she is conducting in the states that border the Gulf of Mexico.

The other main message is that the lionfish is an invasive species that is spreading rapidly. Because it has very few natural predators, it is detrimental to the native fish species.

“They are an aquarium’s dream; an underwater photographer’s dream,” Kenning said. “Some people say it’s great that we have lionfish here. I don’t have to go to the Indo-Pacific to see lionfish any more. But I usually show people one image and they change their minds. It’s their predation. These guys are hungry, hungry fish, and they are eating through our native fish populations. We cut open one lionfish and found 21 juvenile grunts in its stomach. We had another lionfish from Biscayne Bay that had 64 juvenile fish and a shrimp in its stomach.

“We know that lionfish consume more than 70 different fish species and invertebrates. It can consume prey species up to half their size, and their stomach can expand up to 30 times its normal size to take in all that food.”

Kenning said the lionfish is the first marine invasive fish species to become established in the Atlantic. DNA evidence can trace the current U.S. population back to nine female lionfish that were likely released from someone’s aquarium. The first lionfish in the wild was spotted in south Florida in 1985. Kenning said the lionfish population has since spread like wildfire with sightings off the Atlantic Coast and Bermuda around 2000, then the Bahamas in 2004 and the rest of the Caribbean in 2007. Now, the lionfish population encompasses all of the Gulf of Mexico, up the Atlantic Coast and the Caribbean. Juvenile lionfish floating in the currents account for the spread of the species, Kenning said.

Kenning asked the 50-plus in attendance at 5 Rivers Delta Center in Spanish Fort where they had spotted lionfish during their diving excursions. Most responded reefs, wrecks or any kind of structure.

“Every single type of habitat we’ve looked at, we’ve found lionfish,” she said. “They live on natural reefs or artificial reefs. They really like structure, so we’ll see them in mangroves, in seagrass beds, boat basins, pilings. We’ve seen them inches deep in the mangroves, all the way out to 1,000 feet deep from private submarine footage.

“We’ve seen them all the way up to Massachusetts in the summertime.”

Kenning said in its native range the lionfish will reach a maximum of 13 inches. In the U.S., there have been fish up to 19 inches captured.

The reason lionfish are so successful in the wild is they possess 18 venomous spines, which are used for defense. There are 13 venomous spines on the dorsal fin, two on the pelvic fins and three on the anal fins. The venom is a protein-based neurotoxin, which can cause severe pain and swelling. Kenning said each person reacts differently to the venom.

“Snakes have fangs, bees have stingers and lionfish have spines to deliver the venom,” Kenning said. “The good news is there is no documented case of anyone dying from lionfish venom.”

Should anyone be unfortunate and get punctured by a lionfish spine, Kenning said that divers should follow all normal procedures to safely return to the surface because the hazards from ascending too quickly far outweigh the effects of lionfish venom. After safely on the surface, divers should clean the wound with soap and water.

“Remove any rings because of the potential of swelling,” Kenning said. “Then you want to immerse the hand in non-scalding hot water. Because it is a protein, when you heat it up, the venom will get broken down. If the wound looks red after the pain subsides, seek medical help.”

Obviously, it’s better to avoid the spines altogether. Kenning gave the attendees tips on how to capture the fish with nets if spearfishing is not allowed. She recommended using puncture-resistant gloves to handle the fish. Holding the fish by the head is best to subdue the fish.

Because lionfish rarely are caught on hook and line, Kenning said the best method for the recreational sector to deal with the invasive species is by divers taking the fish. In south Florida, there are numerous lionfish derbies that have been organized to reduce the number of lionfish in that area. Kenning said that one derby in the Florida Keys managed to land more than 1,000 lionfish, which translates to a savings of more than two million prey fish that those lionfish would have consumed.

Speaking of consumption, Kenning also hopes to spread the word of how great lionfish taste.

“Lionfish are venomous but not poisonous,” she said. “We wouldn’t have a lionfish cookbook if they were poisonous. The venom is nowhere near the flesh.”

In fact, Chef Chris Sherrill of the Flora-Bama Yacht Club prepared lionfish sashimi for those at the workshop. He lightly seared the fish in sesame oil and flavored with garlic, salt and pepper.

“To me, it tastes like freshwater crappie,” Sherrill said. “It’s a lot like flounder, light and fluffy. We have fried the whole fish with the spines clipped off. We’ve clipped the spines and grilled the whole fish. We have wrapped it in bacon, and we’ve prepared it sashimi style. It’s delicious.”

Chris Blankenship, Director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division, said the lionfish population is “exploding” in Alabama’s vast artificial reef zone, and he wants divers to get the word out about how good the fish is to eat.

“We were out last week and put a camera down on a chicken coop we had found,” Blankenship said. “There were six lionfish on that one reef. Some reefs have them and some don’t, but they definitely have increased. There was one lionfish speared in Perdido Pass, but the majority we’re seeing are on the artificial reefs in 80 to 100 feet of water.

“The thing is they’re competing for the things red snapper eat, like the wrasses and small tomtates. They’re prolific eaters. They don’t really bite a hook very well. Spearfishing is really the best way to get rid of them. We’re reaching out to the dive shops and having seminars like this one at 5 Rivers to encourage people to spear them and learn how good they taste.”

Any divers who see or spear lionfish are asked to report the sightings to Craig Newton of Marine Resources at 251-861-2882. Visit www.REEF.org or www.outdooralabama.com for more information.

PHOTOS: (Courtesy of REEF) A diver grabs a lionfish by the head after spearing the invasive species in south Florida, where lionfish are having the most impact on native fish species. The good news is that only the spines of the lionfish are venomous and the flesh is delicious. Chef Chris Sherrill of the Flora-Bama Yacht Club served lionfish sashimi to the 50-plus attendees at 5 Rivers.

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