It’s not surprising that for as many correct lionfish facts and information sources that are accumulating about the non-native lionfish problem in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, that we also run across an equal amount of misinformation, incorrect facts about lionfish and misperceptions being perpetuated as well. We’ve reached out to fellow hunters, educators, scientists and conservationists to find out what myths they believed were most prevalent in an effort to finally set the record straight. Education is a cornerstone of conservation.
1. Lionfish carry a deadly poison in their spines.
Lionfish are not poisonous, they are venomous. The difference between poison and venom is the method of delivery. Venom must be injected into the bloodstream to cause injury, such as through a sharp spine or fang, but is harmless if drunk or eaten. Poison has to be ingested or absorbed to be harmful; lionfish carry no poison in the edible meat of the fish.
The venom found in the needle-sharp dorsal, pelvic and anal fins of a lionfish is NOT deadly to an otherwise healthy human being, though envenomation WILL cause an immense amount of localized pain, swelling and, in some instances, blistering and infection if not treated properly. It is possible for some people to have an allergic reaction to the venom, which comes with a host of potentially deadly complications resulting from anaphylactic shock, which could also be caused by any other serious allergy to bee stings or eating shellfish.
Lionfish fact: Lionfish venom is a protein-based, neuromuscular toxin that can be denatured when cooked over 350 degrees for just a short period of time. Heat breaks the proteins down, which is why soaking the affected area in very hot water is also an effective first aid treatment for lionfish stings.
Note, however, cooking lionfish is NOT required. They are NOT poisonous to eat and if you did consume the venom from the spines, nothing is likely to happen.
2. Lionfish can become very aggressive and charge with their spines.
There is no evidence to support the assertion that lionfish are aggressive towards divers or human beings whatsoever. First, I’ve never seen a lionfish become aggressive towards a diver. Normally they just sit there fat, dumb and happy until I put a spear into them. Those that see divers and go into hiding have probably had an injurious encounter with a hunter in the past through through which it lived and learned to avoid divers. Lionfish do use their spines as a defensive mechanism to keep from being eaten and tend to posture themselves when threatened or resting so that they present as many of these spines towards a potential threat as possible. There has been a great deal of video taken of lionfish fighting with one another and they do not “attack” or go on offensive with their spines.
Lionfish fact: Hunters typically get stung by live lionfish when it has been speared and the injured or dying fish is shaking violently to get off of the spear tip. Most lionfish hunters use spears that are less than a meter or 3 feet in length which puts a thrashing fish with dozens of dangerous spines perilously close to the body (or occasionally other divers), especially if it manages to get off of the spear and the fish is blindly trying to get to cover!
3. Lionfish is poisonous or dangerous to eat.
Healthy lionfish are NOT poisonous or dangerous to eat. Unlike the puffer fish (fugu) death is NOT likely from eating a lionfish that has been improperly butchered or prepared. Lionfish meat contains no poisonous toxins and is no different than grouper, snapper, wahoo, triggerfish, etc. Thousands of anglers and spearfishermen kill, fillet and eat lionfish without consequence. Of course, the lionfish should be handled correctly to prevent injury from the lionfish’s many venomous spines until they can be removed or the venom rendered inert.
Lionfish Fact: Fresh lionfish can be eaten raw, in ceviche (cooked in citric acid) or cooked any number of ways.
Like all seafood, there is an exception to the above and we would be less than honest if we did not point out one area of concern as it relates to the safety of consuming lionfish: There are areas in the eastern islands of the Caribbean Sea that are considered “hot spots” for ciguatera fish poisoning and over 400 different fish species are known to carry ciguatoxin that can cause ciguatera. It has been documented through scientific study that lionfish can carry the ciguatera toxin, too, thus making them potentially unsafe to eat IN THOSE SPECIFIC GEOGRAPHIC AREAS of concern. It should be noted that there is not a single documented or suspected case in which a person has contracted ciguatera from eating lionfish. However, while the chances are very low, we feel that any risk of death or serious disease is too much. If you are vacationing on an island where ciguatera is a known risk, you are probably already aware of this danger.
Ever wondered what lionfish tastes like? They’re DELICIOUS!
4. Lionfish are too small and too bony to eat.
Lionfish can grow to sizes beyond 19 inches or 3 pounds and come in all sizes in between; they aren’t really boney at all. If you do bring up a fish that’s just a bit too small to serve as a whole fillet you can put them into a ceviche, carpaccio, eat them raw (sashimi or sushi) or fry up some fish nuggets; there are plenty of things you can do with small fillets!
Of course, if the DEAD lionfish is not worth the hassle of handling or preparing, you can always leave the fish floating or sinking to the bottom. Numerous fish will find them and eat them and it can be fun to watch from a distance!
REMEMBER: NEVER NEVER NEVER feed a lionfish to a predator
from the end of your spear.
Those that do so are encouraging dangerous behavior by training potentially aggressive predators to focus on the point of a spear that is usually only about 3 feet long. You can seriously injure unsuspecting hunters that dive in the area long after this behavior is introduced.
Here is an account of a story in Belize from our Facebook page:
“I had the craziest thing happen to me today on Half Moon Wall after diving the Blue Hole in Belize today… The moray eels, barracuda, groupers and snappers all got VERY, VERY aggressive when I speared lionfish and really fought with each other in the middle of an otherwise inexperienced group of divers. Teeth were everywhere!
The third lionfish I completely stoned but was blind-sided by a 5 or 6 foot barracuda from behind that came, maybe, 1 foot from my head, going at least 20 miles an hour, and tore into the fish at the end of my spear so hard that it ended up taking the entire sling with it. There was no saving the spear. The 4 other lionfish I saw on the rest of the dive gave me the middle finger and, I swear, I heard them laughing at me. When I was talking with the other divemasters on the way back, several of them showed me some serious scars they had all received from the moray eels and barracudas trying to get at the lionfish they had speared and remarked that they were surprised that the sharks didn’t show up, too.
My thoughts: THERE IS NO REASON WHATSOEVER TO BE FEEDING LIONFISH TO ANYTHING ELSE AT THE END OF A SLING OR SPEAR. NONE. THIS CREATES DANGEROUS BEHAVIOR and there is no reason to believe that it is creating predators – just aggressive, opportunistic feeders.”
5. A Lionfish’s poisonous spines make them inedible to other predatory fish.
I watch snapper, grouper, sharks, triggerfish, moray eels and barracuda eat lionfish all of the time – some in one gulp while others chew them up. I cannot tell you how many times I read this and it is simply not true; it would seem that the reason these predators are not regularly eating lionfish is not due to the venom (not poison) but because they do not recognize healthy lionfish as prey… however, they all recognize an easy meal!
6. Predators, like grouper, are learning to eat lionfish.
There is ZERO evidence that 1. ANY predators, not just sharks, are hunting and eating healthy and uninjured lionfish without some sort of other stimulus or intervention other than hunger and 2. Potential predators, sharks, groupers, snapper, eels, etc., DO NOT teach other predators or their young to consume lionfish, so any behavior that is learned is relatively short-lived.
Yes, we can get the predators excited by our presence – which animal doesn’t like a free and easy meal? While living and diving in Cozumel, Mexico, I regularly had mutton snapper bird-dogging lionfish for me. They’d find them and point them out but would not get any closer to the lionfish until I speared them. If fish wasn’t large enough to eat, I’d leave the dead or injured lionfish in the water column, away from the safety of the reef, and the snapper would compete with the triggerfish, barracudas and odd grouper for them.
This is NOT predation; this is an underwater entitlement program.
Thinking that the potential predators can be trained is an absolute myth perpetuated by the pretty pictures and the various videos we see of groupers, sharks and snapper eating lionfish. Pictures like this are a red herring not backed up by any science and, I think, causes more harm than good to the general population’s understanding of the truth. Until we are opening up bellies and seeing a gut full of healthy uninjured lionfish on a recurring basis we cannot believe that it is happening. This type of reporting is bad for our conservation efforts because it gives lay people hope that sharks, snappers and groupers are coming to the reef’s and local fisheries’ rescue. They are not. Evolutionary behavioral changes can take thousands, tens of thousands and sometimes, much longer. Some scientist think that we have MAYBE 20 years to find some sort of better solution other than sending divers after them with spears, though it has been found both effective of controlling the lionfish population and beneficial for the rebound of local fish populations when efforts are concentrated in targeted key areas; Cozumel’s Marine Park, is a shining example of just that.
Perhaps the better use of the fish we are feeding to other fish is to bring them to shore and feed them to the local population, thereby alleviating hunger AND teaching them that lionfish are great to eat and better for their fisheries than poaching or decimating the grouper and snapper populations.
[[Author’s note (August 5, 2013)… After starting to see photographic evidence of lionfish in grouper and JUST having had a personal conversation with a local spearfisherman in Aruba in which told me that he watched a black grouper hunt and eat an otherwise healthy and unbothered lionfish, I’m starting to believe that there is some truth here. Grouper MAY be eating more lionfish than we thought – though one recent study found that native fish species are having almost no effect on the total lionfish population. In other words, the findings seem to indicate that they are not eating enough lionfish to really make a difference.]]
7. Lionfish are found in nature and not causing any real harm.
Lionfish are causing so much harm that they may actually cause the complete collapse of many fisheries and reefs. This is probably not the right article to address this patently wrong and misleading statement, but I’ll try to summarize it the best I can. We know, and it is scientifically proven, exactly how BAD lionfish are for the underwater environment in the Western Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.
To make this very simple: Lionfish are a non-native, invasive species without predator. A single female can lay up to 2 million eggs, which are then dispersed far and wide by ocean currents. They eat almost EVERYTHING in the water that they can get their large mouths around. In fact, they regularly eat fish that are 1/3 their size and their stomachs can expand up to 30 times its normal volume. Using hunting tactics that native fish populations have not evolved to recognize or avoid, lionfish glut themselves with as many fish as they can capture in a single feeding. They are known to eat small schools of up to twenty reef dwelling fish at a time (one scientist noted over 60 prey in one lionfish stomach). Furthermore, studies have proven that one lionfish can reduce the number of all species of fish that it is able to consume by up to 80% within just 5 weeks of establishing its range.
The fish (and lobster, crab and shrimp) that lionfish voraciously and indiscriminately consume all play vital roles in the ecosystem:
- some creatures keep the reef healthy by clearing it of algae and other particulate that would otherwise smother and kill the coral;
- some creatures keep other fish clean of debris, parasites and disease;
- other fish use the reef structure as protection until they become large enough to survive in the open ocean and are consequently usually the most commercially important species of fish.
When populations of these native fish are decimated:
- Reefs, which are important for ocean health, global health and human health, die.
- Fish die due to the spread of disease and loss of habitat.
- Fisherman, families and communities who rely upon harvesting native fish, go broke and go hungry.
- Tourist-related businesses (and countries) that rely upon reefs and biodiversity as a draw, suffer enormously.
- Populations of people that rely heavily upon a seafood diet suffer due to lower yields, higher prices and greater pressure on other food supplies.
8. Conservation efforts are not having any effect. You’ll never eradicate lionfish completely.
It is true that lionfish are here to stay and we’ll never get rid of them all, huge populations of lionfish are well outside of our reach, but as our friends from the Caribbean Oceanic Restoration and Education Foundation (CORE) like to say, “Trash is also a problem but it’s not like you are going to do nothing about it.“ Trash will continue to accumulate but quality of life significantly improves when it is hauled away and managed properly. The lionfish problem is just like that. Regardless of just how bad the situation sometimes looks, we must NOT GIVE UP!
Lionfish fact: Scientific studies PROVE that where lionfish culls are concentrated and maintained, native fish species will return and rebound in a relatively short amount of time. We MAKE A DIFFERENCE. YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE, TOO. KILL LIONFISH (whether you eat them or not)!
9. Lionfish are beautiful and killing them is cruel. We should leave them alone and let nature take its course.
Yes, lionfish are some of the most beautiful fish in all of the oceans but nature doesn’t have enough time to run its course; evolution can take tens of thousand or millions of years to make the necessary adjustments we need in our lifetimes. If you cannot wrap your brain around why lionfish are a threat to the existence of entire populations of human beings, then I suppose I’m not going to change your opinion. Yes, killing sucks and it is an unfortunate set of circumstances that we cannot herd these lionfish into underwater internment camps where they are safely contained until they can be exported, alive and uninjured, back to their native homeland in the Indo-Pacific. But we can’t. Adopting them into loving homes with beautiful aquariums where they can be happy and healthy isn’t going to work either.
If leaving them in waters, where they are non-native, is clearly not an option, then they must be removed – just like a single weed that threatens an entire garden must be plucked from the earth. They’re fish and when we take them out of the water they die – it just works that way. The only practical method to remove lionfish from the water is by spearing them; at least this way they tend to die faster and remain in a good enough condition so that they can be eaten.
So… get over it.
10. I’m not a diver or I don’t live in a place affected by lionfish, so I cannot be of any help.
EVERYONE CAN HELP MANAGE THE LIONFISH POPULATION!!! There are many things you can (and should) do:
- Spread the word!
- Share educational lionfish-related posts from reputable sources via your social networks. (Share this post now before you forget!)
- DON’T promote or applaud dangerous lionfish-related behavior (like feeding lionfish to potentially dangerous predators from the end of a spear).
- Promote the consumption of lionfish; eat it, ask for lionfish at your favorite seafood restaurant (especially when it is not on the menu) and suggest it to your friends!
- Volunteer to help do anything at a lionfish derby.
- Donate to organizations that promote lionfish management and conservation; scuba equipment, lionfish hunting gear, fuel for boats and air compressors aren’t exactly inexpensive!
Most importantly, please don’t turn a blind eye to the lionfish problem.
It affects us all!
We need to educate entire populations, correct misinformation that is being perpetuated and promote lionfish as a desirable and sustainable source of seafood that cannot possibly be over-fished or bad for the environment. Yes, it seems contrary to typical conservation ideals, but over-fishing or crashing the lionfish population would be a good thing. Whether you like to eat fish or not, we are all affected by the health of our reef systems.
Want to learn how to hunt lionfish in a hands on course with the experts? The non-profit group Ennds.org conducts regular lionfish training programs with hands on diving under supervision.