Florida Keys’ coral reefs are still under attack by the invasive lionfish.
Keri Kenning, of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), said the fish is devastating to marine ecosystems here.
“Lionfish eat snapper, grouper, Spanish hogfish, shrimp, parrotfish, and much more,” she said. “When they eat environmentally important creatures like parrotfish, that eat algae and allow coral to grow, it impacts the whole reef.”
REEF, in Key Largo, hosted a packed class Wednesday evening for people seeking permits to remove the varmints from specially protected areas such as Looe Key and Molasses Reef.
The Indo-Pacific species was introduced to Atlantic waters from loosed aquarium occupants. Lionfish have no predators here, and can eat prey up to half their length, REEF says.
In the workshop, certified instructors explained how to capture the fish by putting a net in front and behind them. Spearing is not permitted in most protected areas, but even in other areas, netting is usually easier.
“Some lionfish are less than an inch,” said volunteer instructor Elizabeth Underwood. “The fish do not move much when they are approached, since they are not used to predators.”
She also explained how to avoid the fish’s venomous spines, which deliver a painful sting with side effects. Grab the sea creature by placing fingers between the cheeks, Underwood said.
On a positive note, the lionfish tastes very similar to hogfish, said Project Director Lad Akins, echoing a push in recent years to market the lionfish as seafood. “And it can easily be cleaned.
“You can fillet them like a regular fish,” he said. “If you are concerned with the spines, cut them off with a pair of scissors or cooking shears.”
Efforts have been underway to control the species.
“A Conch Key lobster fisherman we work with brought up 18,000 pounds of lionfish in a single season,” Underwood said. “They are the No. 2 caught fish next to Porgies.”
REEF also puts on a series of fishing derbies throughout Florida and the Caribbean with cash prizes for those who capture the most, largest and smallest lionfish.
Last year in Key Largo, the derby brought in 461 fish and bestowed awards of up to $1,000. For more information, visit reef.org/lionfish/derbies.
Alex Press, an intern with The Citizen, is a recent graduate of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.