Photo: iStock Photos
At the Perry Institute I meet Paul Sikkel, an Arkansas State University marine parasitologist who is spending much of his time dissecting lionfish, looking for “any chink in their armour”. The more parasites, the more vulnerable the fish may be. However, as he peers into a microscope at the gill tissue of a lionfish, he exclaims, “I cannot believe this. These are the cleanest fish I’ve ever seen. I’m seeing no parasites!” Lionfish 1, scientists 0.
Many researchers have been hoping to discover a local predator of the invader. Mark Hixon recently travelled to the Pacific to see what keeps the lionfish there “in check”. “At this time, we just don’t know,” he says.
Hixon and others have tried to entice a wide range of fish, from sharks to sea bass, into eating the venomous invaders, but they’ve shown little interest. Bruce Purdy even dangled a lionfish in front of a green moray eel, a voracious eater, without luck. “The eel struck out at the lionfish, got stung, and gave up,” recalls Purdy. Lionfish 2, scientists 0.
A consortium of marine conservation agencies and organisations has been established to serve as an “early warning system” for the lionfish invasion. One member is the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) in Florida. In January 2009, a diver told then-executive director Lisa Mitchell she’d seen a lionfish in the 9800km² Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
“We freaked out. It was the first confirmed sighting of a lionfish in our waters,” recalls Mitchell. Early the next morning a team from REEF jumped into a dive boat and sped to the scene of the sighting near the remains of a sunken ship.
The team found the lionfish right where the diver said it would be and netted it. Says Mitchell, “We know we can’t remove every lionfish out there but we’re doing our best to prevent them from gaining a foothold in our backyard.”
While it’s far too late to stop the lionfish invasion by capturing and killing, some governments have culling programmes to help stem the tide. Local fishermen are taught how to safely catch and dispatch the fish.
Many experts feel the best way to control the lionfish is one of the simplest – by eating them. Indeed, some restaurants in Nassau have begun featuring lionfish on their menu. But as I soon discover, Bahamians are leery of eating what they consider to be “that poison fish”.
When I ask Susan Gordon, a noted chef on Great Exuma, if she will share a lionfish dinner with me, she howls with laughter and says, “No way! I’m not touching that fish.”
Finally, after I explain that the lionfish is harmless once its spines have been removed and cooking neutralises any venom, she reluctantly agrees to prepare one. Paul Tikkel brings in a pudgy 46cm-long fish Hixon’s team dubbed “Big Poppa” and confirms he has removed the needle-like spines. Gordon promises to eat it with me “if you take the first bite”.
With a crowd of locals and marine biologists urging us on, Susan fillets, batters and fries up the fish, adding lime juice and minced garlic. As I raise a forkful of the whitefish to my mouth I can hear a pin drop. I remember Hixon telling me earlier, “The nearest hospital is a plane ride away.”
The fish is flaky, almost sweet, like grouper. “Delicious,” I say as I take another bite. Gordon hesitates but takes a forkful. Her verdict: “Mmmmm.”
Our audience nods in approval. I think we’ve convinced them that when properly cooked lionfish are perfectly safe – and tasty – to eat. But to seal the deal I remind them, “In Asia, the lionfish is said to be prized as a powerful aphrodisiac.”
I can still hear the audience’s laughter and see the broad smiles.
Writer 1, Lionfish 0.
A recent discovery has sent a chill through the marine biologists striving to stem the lionfish invasion. Marine biologist James Morris and colleagues have published a study that found red lionfish females can produce more than two million eggs a year. The race to find a way to stop this invasion has just heated up.
MAP: COURTESY OF US GEOLOGICAL SURVEY / NATIONAL ATMOSPHERIC AND OCEANIC ADMINISTRATION / REEF ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION FOUNDATION
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