'They are prolific': Lionfish pose a threat in the Gulf of Mexico

MATT ALGARIN
Will Patterson from the University of South Alabama warned attendees at Thursday night's Lionfish Social at Jackacuda's of the dangers lionfish pose to the marine environment.

Will Patterson from the University of South Alabama says the invasive lionfish poses a serious threat to our local waterways.

"They are the most successful marine fish invader to date," he said. "They are prolific (in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean)."

Patterson led a Lionfish Social at Jackacuda's in HarborWalk Village Thursday night, which saw prominent members of the local fishing community turnout for the educational program.

The lionfish was introduced to the coastal waters in Southern Florida roughly 30 years ago. While it's not known for sure how the lionfish, which are native to the South Pacific and Indian Ocean, was first brought to the area, but the main theory is that it was due to an aquarium release, according to information provided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Lionfish began showing up in the Northern Gulf of Mexico in 2010, Patterson told the crowd, which included Dewey Destin, Capt. Kelly Windes and Capt. Jim Green amongst others. By late 2012, most of the natural and artificial reefs had been fully infested.

Part of the issue when it comes to catching lionfish is they typically do not go after a baited hook.

"If they took a hook, it would be a lot easier," Patterson said.

"We take 15,000 people a year fishing and we caught three (on a hook) last year," Capt. Jim Green said.

The most effective way to catch a lionfish, given they don't swim very fast, is by net or spear fishing.

"There are many fewer divers than fisherman," who can kill a few hundred a day, Patterson said. "But there are millions of these creatures."

Commercially, lionfish can be harvested and sold to local restaurants. The fish itself is white and flakey with a mild non-fishy taste similar to flounder and black sea bass.

"Consumers are there," Patterson said. "It's developing that supply chain though."

During Thursday's social, Chef Tyler McMahan and his team created a variety of lionfish dishes for the crowd to sample, including a lionfish ceviche and a poached curry lionfish with green tea soba noodles.

For Patterson, the key is to find ways to continue controlling the lionfish population, whether it's through organized hunting tournaments or commercial uses.

"We are not going to wipe them out overnight," he said.

LIONFISH FACTS 

Lionfish are slow moving and relatively easy to capture with dip nets or spears.

Currently have no significant predators in the Atlantic of Gulf of Mexico.

Have 18 venomous spines that can cause painful wounds.

Are not aggressive and use their venomous spines only for defense. 

Can release up to 30,000 eggs per spawn.

Stalk predators and often use their fins to herd prey into a corner.

Able to consume prey that are more than half of their own length.

(Courtesy of the FWC)

For more information about lionfish, see http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/education/stories/lionfish/factsheet.htmlhttp://oceanservice.noaa.gov/education/stories/lionfish/factsheet.html.