By LISA MONTIIf there was a contest to crown the most menacing among all the aquatic invasive species, the lionfish from Indo-Pacific waters surely would reign.
In the appearance category, the lionfish is strikingly exotic, with lots of moving parts and dramatic curves. Beyond its looks, the fish has dangerous attributes. Venomous quills help keep captors and predators away. Its appetite is fierce and it can adapt to various water depths and temperatures.
The lionfish has joined the list of invaders with the potential to edge-out native species on land and in the water. Right now, the state Department of Marine Resources is actively managing about a dozen invasive species, including giant salvinia, wild hogs, water hyacinth, cogon grass and the Asian tiger shrimp, the reigning aquatic threat before lionfish proliferated.
“Each invasive species is a problem but the lionfish is uniquely serious,” said Mike Pursley, manager of DMR’s Invasive Species program.
For one thing, the fish can reproduce rapidly. A single female can release 2 million eggs per year. “They are so prolific, they spawn all the time,” he said. “The female releases eggs into ocean currents and the larvae arrive hungry and ready to feed.”
Lionfish are not picky eaters, feasting on small fishes living among reefs. The loss of the native fish is felt in the economy and the environment. “There is documentation that coral reefs have been decimated by lionfish,” Pursley said.
As invaders go, the lionfish is fairly new, traced back to the 1980s in South Florida. One theory is the fish, popular with aquarium owners, were released from captivity and have since spread up the East Coast, throughout the Caribbean and most recently in the Gulf of Mexico. South America is expected to be the next area of invasion.
So far, the presence of lionfish off the Mississippi coastline hasn’t been that obvious. There has been only one official sighting of a lionfish in the state and that one was caught far out into the Gulf. DMR reported that Jason Jones of Biloxi established a state record for lionfish. The fish, caught Feb. 7, weighed 1 pound, 11.20 ounces. Pursley said sightings are rare because Gulf waters aren’t clear like the waters in the Caribbean.
Still, few sightings doesn’t diminish the potential hatm of the species, which threatens the food chain wherever it thrives.
One way to attack the problem is to turn the invader into a meal, at home and in restaurants. Environmental advocates in states threatened by the lionfish are pushing for catching the fish for sport and marketing them to seafood lovers.
Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has an app to report lionfish sightings, and the FWC’s Lionfish Team conducts demonstrations on how to handle and fillet the fish at events around the state. The flesh isn’t poisonous but you do have to take care when handling the fish to avoid the venomous spines.
The cooked fillets are described as firm, white and flaky with a mild taste similar to flounder. Restaurants in the Caribbean have added lionfish to the menu, and some restaurants in the coastal U.S. have followed suit.
The Blind Tiger in Bay St. Louis recently listed lionfish tacos as a new menu item, “and the first of our lionfish offerings.” An online menu invites customers to “enjoy the crunch of the lightly battered and deep-fried” fish, but supplies apparently have been spotty. “We serve Lion Fish as often as we can get it. Not sure when we will get again,” the restaurant said in an online response to questions.
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