Lionfish are beautiful. With their striped bodies and dramatic plumes, the graceful, vibrantly colored aquatic animals look less like the product of evolution and more like something out of Bob Mackie's sketchbook. Unfortunately, they also suck for the ecosystem. In the Atlantic waters off of Florida, P. volitans is in the midst of an ongoing population boom that is threatening other fish species. Despite efforts to pare down their numbers — in Honduras, divers have even trained sharks to eat them — the lionfish army has only continued to grow. And, if recent reports about their expansion are any indication, this is an epidemic without a foreseeable end.
WTF is a lionfish?
Lionfish are popular saltwater aquarium fish that are indigenous to the Indo-Pacific region. They can range in size from two to 18 inches, and weigh up to nearly three pounds. Voracious eaters, lionfish can consume animals up to half their size — and that puts about 70 percent of the fish population within their diet range.
If lionfish are native to the Pacific, how did they end up in the Atlantic? Marine biologists aren't sure, but some theorize that six of them may have been released into the wild from an aquarium during 1992's Hurricane Andrew. There, they flourished (females can each lay up to two million eggs per year).
Why can't they be stopped?
What makes lionfish formidable is their poisonous spines. In humans alone, the venom can cause extreme pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, breathing difficulties — you get the idea. In some instances, it can even be fatal. With this kind of defense system, lionfish are menacing; in an unprepared ecosystem like the Atlantic, where they have no natural predators besides humans, they simply demolish everything around them.
That's not an exaggeration. Chris Flook from the Ocean Support Foundation in Bermuda told The Naked Scientists last year that all of the lionfish he's dissected from the region show signs of fatty liver disease. "[This] is a classic captive problem and [indicative of] the fact that you’re overfeeding them and the fish aren't working hard enough to get food. So to see every single lionfish from the wild cut open and have fatty liver disease is very telling...they’re just gorging."
According to the Christian Science Monitor, several studies have shown that at least 40 Atlantic fish species have experienced population shrinkages since the lionfish showed up.
What can you do?
Eat them. Eat the hell out of them. Lionfish have tasty, semi-firm flesh that is mildly flavored and similar in texture to grouper. The flesh itself is not poisonous, but care must be taken to remove the poisonous spines before eating. The Reef Environmental Education Foundation even released a cookbook in order to spread the word. You can also check out this video tutorial to see how to prepare one. Delicious. (CNN)