It’s hard to believe such a small, beautiful creature can cause so much harm and destruction to our reefs and fisheries. We are talking about the lionfish, a small venomous fish from the Indo-Pacific that has been released into our waters within the past 10 years and is spreading rapidly.
These fish have mostly been used in the aquarium business and are about as amazing to look at as anything nature has to offer.
However, they have spread in waters from the Caribbean all the way to Maine in a 10-year period, are extremely aggressive and devour everything from tiny crustaceans to juvenile parrot fish, grouper and snapper. They even have been known to eat crabs, shrimp, starfish, jellyfish and sea urchins.
These fish must be controlled, or we will see a major decrease in native marine life.
THEY KEEP COMING
For a fish that grows to only about 16 inches long and usually weighs about 2 pounds, they are becoming a problem. They live up to 15 years and produce two large egg balls at a time containing thousands of eggs each. They are reproducing at an extremely high rate — sometimes about 2.1 million eggs annually per female.
The females are capable of reproducing every four days.
The lionfish has no known predators and has the potential of wiping out other marine species. Lionfish derbies are frequently held in the Keys to help control the population in that area.
The most productive way to harvest the lionfish is by spearfishing around reefs and ledges. These fish occasionally will take a hook and line, but it is not very common, and you will need more than one or two to feed the family.
Use common sense and caution when fishing for and handling lionfish. They can cause extreme pain if you are hit by one of as many as 18 poisonous fins on their bodies. If you are struck, expect extreme pain followed by nausea and possible vomiting. The good news is they are not fatal to humans.
The best news, however, is they make absolutely fabulous table fare. They are usually compared to a cross between hog snapper and grouper in meat quality and are fairly easy to clean.
To clean, start by cutting behind the head and gills at an angle just like filleting any other fin fish. Next, cut the skin under the belly down to the tail, then down the backbone to the tail.
Basically, you have cut the skin loose from the edges of the fillet. Now, take the top corner of the skin with your fingertips and peel back (like preparing a mahi fillet), removing all of the skin.
Then, just cut the skinned fillet from the rib bone and you are finished. (Note for the cleaner: Some anglers recommend heavy-duty leather gloves to help keep those prickly poison fins at bay.) Lionfish have a firm-fleshed white meat that can be prepared using just about any cooking method, and they freeze well. Pan-seared, grilled, roasted, deep fried, even in ceviche, they stand up tall on flavor, texture and aromatics.
Seth and Astrid Hayes run Snookin ‘N Cookin, a Naples-based fishing charter company that also offers private dinners and parties. They can be reached at 239-994-1593 or 239-994-3253, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or see their website at www.snookinncookin.com.