North Carolina Sea Grant
Mariner's Menu

Mariner's Menu

June 25, 2013 | Barry Nash

another fresh seafood idea

With its vibrant red hue and long, venomous spines, lionfish are a resplendent underwater sight. However, they are threatening the biodiversity of coastal reefs in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

Lionfish are native to the western Pacific but were brought to this country by the aquarium trade. The first lionfish were observed in the waters of south Florida around 1985. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration surmise lionfish were released from fish tanks into the wild, perhaps intentionally.

By 2000, lionfish were established along the North Carolina coast and were invading the Caribbean by 2007. Lionfish now infest the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and South America.

Lionfish can reach lengths of 12 to 15 inches, weigh up to 2.6 pounds and live up to 15 years. Voracious carnivores, they prey on more than 50 economically important species, such as juvenile snapper and grouper. Lionfish will spread their feathery, fan-like pectoral fins to herd small fish into a confined space where they can easily consume them. They have become one of the top predators in many coral reefs of the Atlantic.

Lionfish are best known for their poisonous spines. The fish deliver their venom through an array of up to 18 needle-like dorsal fins. A lionfish sting is extremely painful, and the discomfort can last for days. Though rarely fatal, the venom can cause sweating, respiratory distress and even paralysis in individuals who are highly sensitive to the toxin. A lionfish’s venom glands are located within its spines; its flesh is nontoxic.

Lionfish are a food source in the Caribbean and are becoming a delicacy in this country. This species has been on the menus of some high-end restaurants in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. With the species spreading so rapidly along the Atlantic Coast, the best solution to the lionfish invasion may be to eat them.

For more information on lionfish, visit the following sites

Contributed by Barry Nash

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