…for fun and dinner

In the past couple of years there has been quite a lot written about lionfish – usually, articles moaning about what a menace they are. In fact, lionfish are very attractive in their bright stripes and flowing plumes. They also taste very good, with the delicate flavour of a fine snapper and the firm texture of sea bass.

They don’t belong here. Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific region and started showing up in the tropical Atlantic in the early 1990s. By now they are well established throughout the Caribbean. Unfortunately, they are also well established in the Marine Park.

We really don’t want them. A couple of lionfish drifting around a coral head may be a pretty sight for tourists but there’s a reason there are no other fish – the lions have eaten them all. Lionfish are ambush predators. They wait for prey to get close to them, then gulp it down. They eat anytime, though their peak periods are dawn and dusk, and they eat everything that will fit in their big mouths, including smaller lionfish. And because those lovely plumes are really poisonous spines, very few things eat lionfish.

Caribbean protected area managers (including the Marine Park Trust) know that we need to get rid of as many lionfish as possible. NEPA’s Alien Invasive Species project is based on the idea that the best way to do that is organized and systematic spearfishing. After a year of studying the habits and hangouts of the Park’s lionfish, the Marine Park Trust launched a program to get them under control.

“We don’t want to send the wrong message,” says Marine Park Ranger and Outreach Officer Joshua Bailey. Spearfishing is not allowed in the Marine Park and there is no fishing of any kind in the Sanctuary areas. However, exceptions can be made for control of invasive species.

The Trust has trained local water sports operators and divers in lionfish culling skills, including safe handling of landed fish and first aid for persons injured by the poisonous spines. Licensed fishers report any catches of lionfish to the Trust so that we can keep track of concentrations of fish.

Lionfish training has been extended to as many fishers as possible, including both traditional (pot or hook-and-line) and spearfishers, and they are encouraged to seek out lionfish on fishing grounds outside the Park. Persons completing the training have been equipped with “culling gear” – spine-proof catch bags, special slings, heavy gloves, and shears.

On Sunday, February 25, the Trust will hold a lionfish fun day at Pier 1. Events will include a presentation of awards to the best local lion hunters, chef demonstrations of lionfish cooking, and a competition to produce original and delicious lionfish dishes. There will be food samples, entertainment, glass bottom boat tours and marine conservation exhibits.

Eating lionfish by itself won’t restore Jamaica’s marine life or bring back a profitable commercial fishery. However, we do need to get rid of as many lionfish as we can, because they’re eating all the baby parrots and grunts and snappers and jacks. We might as well have a good meal and make a dollar while we’re at it.

In fact, this could become a truly sustainable fishery. The stock of lionfish replaces itself quickly – they breed year-round and reach table size in two years. If there are fewer lions, stocks of other reef fish will also get a chance to grow and this will keep the reefs healthier. There is a market for lionfish meat — several local restaurants have added it to their menus and would be happy if there was a reliable regular supply. A commercial lion fishery would give the trained spearfishers a source of income other than shooting parrotfish and a vested interest in keeping other spearfishers out of the Park. Everybody wins.