Searching for Solutions

So, what do we do to stop this lionfish invasion? People are working on ways to address the crisis—scientists, divers, even chefs. Yes, chefs. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Let's start with the scientists. Lionfish don’t have any natural predators in the Atlantic Ocean. So, some scientists tried to solve the problem by teaching local predators to look at lionfish as lunch.

A diver would spear a lionfish and then offer up the meal to a nearby barracuda, eel, or shark. It seemed like a good idea, but it had a few drawbacks. While the predators would gladly eat the lionfish they were offered, most of them didn’t start hunting lionfish on their own. They expected handouts. And some species—especially sharks—began to get aggressive with divers.

A diver spears many lionfish during a lionfish "derby."

Fishing Tournaments

Divers have had a bit more luck managing the problem, down to certain depths, through lionfish “derbies.”

A lionfish derby is a competition to collect and remove as many lionfish at a given place as possible. Teams of divers SCUBA dive, free dive, or snorkel. They net lionfish or spear them.

Each lionfish is measured, and prizes are given out for teams that catch the most, the biggest, and the smallest lionfish. The public is invited to attend the competition. They can taste free lionfish samples and learn more about lionfish.

From 2009 to 2018, the Reef Environment Education Foundation (REEF) hosted derbies that removed more than 23,000 lionfish from specific sites.

Chefs prepare new lionfish recipes.

A Fishy Fare

Despite their troublesome spines, lionfish are not poisonous. They are venomous. The difference between poison and venom is the method of delivery. Poison has to be eaten or absorbed to be harmful. Venom must be injected into the bloodstream to cause injury, such as through a sharp spine or fang. Yet, it is harmless if consumed.

Given that, some chefs have adopted a strategy of “if we can’t beat them, eat them.” In 2010, REEF released a cookbook to get commercial divers and chefs interested in lionfish. Chefs at many top restaurants have tried to find creative ways to offer this new cuisine to their customers. However, building an industry around these fish is hard. They don’t bite on hooks. And they can’t be caught using large nets.

Setting a Trap

Steve Gittings, a chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Sanctuary System, may have yet another strategy to deal with lionfish. He is focused on trapping them by using their natural tendencies against them.

Lionfish like to gather in groups around underwater structures. So, Gittings developed a trap that works like a change purse. Netting is attached to two rounded sides of the “purse.” When the trap hits an ocean surface, it springs open and lays flat.

Inside the trap, a few plastic objects float up. These objects attract lionfish. The trap stays open for a while. Other fish come and go. But lionfish tend to hang out at the trap. Finally, a fisherman tugs on the trap. The purse quickly closes, shutting any lionfish inside.

Scientists agree that there is no way to completely eliminate the invasive lionfish population. Trapping them helps. Spearing and eating them helps. But we must continue to find effective ways to manage the threat. The health of our coral reefs depends on it.

This trap, seen just off shore from Destin, Florida, snaps shut to capture lionfish.