DESTIN — Three hundred feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, a big problem is brewing.
Lionfish — the impossibly beautiful but dangerously invasive fish marked by striking red coloring and distinct spikes — are invading marine ecosystems from the Carolinas to South America. But scientists say the problem is the most pronounced in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Northwest Florida, where lionfish are showing up by the millions and threatening native fish populations like never before.
“Lionfish are not supposed to be here,” said Alex Fogg, marine resource coordinator for Okaloosa County. “They’re an invasive species, they’ll eat pretty much anything that they can fit in their mouth, and nothing eats them. They have no natural predator.”
Now, a small team of scientists, researchers and anglers, many based in Northwest Florida, are working together to try and put a stop to the lionfish problem before it wreaks even more havoc on the delicate underwater ecosystem, which could spell disaster not only for nature but for local economies on coastlines across the United States.
New fish in the Gulf
There’s no surefire way to determine exactly when and how lionfish, a species native to the Indo-Pacific region, ended up in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.
Many researchers believe their introduction to non-native waters was a result, either directly or indirectly, of the aquarium trade.
“People think they were just dumped on the east coast of Florida by people who didn’t want their pet fish to die,” said Dr. Steve Gittings, a scientist with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s marine sanctuary program. “There’s a good chance they were just dumped in canals or in the water somewhere by people who didn’t know any better.”
Researchers such as Fogg began noticing lionfish pop up in the Florida Panhandle between 2010 and 2011. And then their population exploded, thanks in large part to their reproduction rate — a female fish can lay 20,000 to 30,000 eggs every few days, or about 2 million eggs per year.
It’s impossible to know just how many lionfish are out there, but Fogg is comfortable estimating their numbers just in Northwest Florida in the millions.
“It’s really hard to quantify,” he said. “But you can go out to a reef and see 100 to 200 of them on a part of the reef the size of a small car, so if you multiply that by the thousands, tens of thousands, that’s a very large number of fish.”
Another reason for their population size is that they have no natural predators, Fogg said, but will eat anything they can fit in their mouth. As young fish they’re known to eat small crustaceans, but as adults they eat small snappers, groupers and other fish.
David Ventura, the seafood coordinator at Whole Foods Market, says lionfish are relatively small — the largest they’ll grow is around 18 inches long, and weigh about 3 pounds. But their appetite packs a punch.
“They have a ferocious appetite,” Ventura said. “They binge eat. They consume up to 50 fish per day, half the size of their bodies.”
It’s the combination of their population size and eating habits that worry scientists. If the lionfish population isn’t reined in, it could be disastrous for local marine life and the people who depend on them.
“Lionfish have the potential of decimating native populations, especially the smaller fish that other bigger fish eat,” Gittings said. “That can be devastating to the food supply if they deplete those populations.”
Pole spears divers and traps
In an effort to combat lionfish’s harmful effects on the marine ecosystem, a small but dedicated team of scientists, researchers, divers, anglers and even a few seafood enthusiasts are coming together to develop long-term solutions.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has no regulations on the minimum size or daily catch amount allowed for lionfish, and no recreational fishing license is required to catch them with a pole spear, Hawaiian sling, handheld net or any spearing device. The harvest season is open year-round.
The FWC also has at least 23 derbies, tournaments and events geared at harvesting lionfish in 2018, including the Lionfish World Championship, which was held in May in Pensacola
Fogg participated in that tournament along with Josh Livingston, a charter fisherman from Destin. The group, along with two other men, won the tournament by catching 2,400 lionfish in the span of two days.
“Since they have no native predators, they’re not scared of anything eating them, so they just sit there. It’s like picking up trash,” Fogg said.
Additionally, Gittings, the scientist with NOAA, has worked with the FWC to develop specialized lionfish traps that can be deployed deep underwater to humanely catch lionfish in large groups.
The trap is what’s known as a Fish Aggregation Device (FAD) curtain trap, which takes advantage of lionfish’s natural tendencies to gather in large groups and remain still.
“It doesn’t contain the fish until you pull it up out of the water,” Gittings said. “Lionfish come and pretty much stay there, while other fish come and go. ... It catches all the lionfish hanging out above, around and under the trap.”
The traps are deployed in waters as deep as 1,000 feet. While divers with spears have always been the first line of defense against lionfish, most scuba divers can only go to 130 feet deep. Researchers hope the traps can be set up in deeper waters, where lionfish are known to gather in the greatest numbers.
Josh Livingston and his brother, Joe, along with Holden Harris, a doctorate student studying lionfish with the University of Florida, and Fogg have deployed 12 of Gittings’ traps about 18 miles off the coast of Destin along reefs that tend to be too deep for divers.
Their hope is that if the traps are successful, they can be more widely used to catch lionfish and eventually make a dent in the population.
“It would be amazing if we could get all the lionfish out of the water,” Fogg said. “But that’s just not feasible. There are so many reefs and so much habitat, that even if we get rid of 99.99 percent of lionfish, it only takes a few to make the population explode all over again.”
So what can be done with lionfish once they’re caught?
How about lionfish ceviche?
The seafood market’s demand for lionfish is actually much larger than the current supply, Ventura said. He said Whole Foods started buying lionfish from divers and anglers to sell in its Florida stores in April 2016, and since then they’ve sold over 70,000 pounds to consumers.
“What we did initially is we tried it in a couple of stores as a test market, and discovered very quickly that the customer response was overwhelmingly positive,” Ventura said. “Our customers turned out to be very well-educated on the species, and they were very enthusiastic that someone was trying to be a part of the solution. They started to buy them immediately.”
Lionfish is sold at Whole Foods stores across the state, including Destin, where it goes for $7.99 to $9.99 per pound.
Livingston said he and a handful of other divers used to sell lionfish exclusively to local Destin restaurants. But when Whole Foods entered the market two years ago, the price of lionfish rose and catching them became more lucrative for divers. Now, with greater incentives, more divers are in the water trying to catch lionfish to sell to seafood vendors, including local restaurants and Whole Foods.
Chatham Morgan, a Destin restaurateur, said he sells it occasionally at his La Paz Mexican Restaurant. He said he’d like to sell more lionfish, but has a hard time getting a steady supply.
“They’re tedious to clean and harvest, and there’s lots of labor involved, which drives the price up. And lots of fish markets don’t see the value in them ... yet,” Morgan said. “The old-school guys don’t like messing with them. Because of that we have real supply issues. I’d sell it every day, and my customers would buy it if there was a regular supply of fish. But there isn’t, so I can’t sell it.”
But for those who can get their hands on lionfish, there are several ways to serve them up.
Ventura said lionfish are comparable in taste to hogfish or grouper, and have a white flesh and a very “sweet flavor.”
“We discovered along the way that the fish is very versatile for cooking,” Ventura said. “It can be prepared many ways — some of the ways we encourage are as a ceviche, sushi, sautéed and one of my favorites, which are fish tacos.”
As scientists get closer to figuring out a solution to the lionfish problem, they may become more readily available to seafood consumers. Until then, Fogg said, they will work to develop more ways to remove lionfish from the sea and hopefully put them on people's plates.
"There's a high commercial demand for them, and restaurants love them," he said. "There's no shortage of lionfish out there. There's a shortage of lionfish being removed."