How to stop an invasion? Eat it. | Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute

Photo courtesy of NOAA
Photo courtesy of NOAA

In 2005, they were a rare sight, a novelty, something to get excited about. In 2010, they became an invasion. Today, there’s no end in sight.

The lionfish is an invasive species originally from the Indo-Pacific that is making its mark on the Caribbean. They are beautifully striped and adorned with a feathery ‘mane,’ but lionfish have a dark side in the shape of venomous spines and a voracious appetite for reef fish. Lionfish are also fierce predators, yet they have no natural predator in the Caribbean.

The story goes that a few lionfish were released into the ocean, perhaps accidentally, from aquaria around South Florida. For a few years, they were spotted along the Florida and Atlantic Coasts. Then Bermuda, then a few Caribbean islands. Then their population exploded and are now found everywhere in the Caribbean.

We’re not talking about just a few lionfish here and there on Caribbean reefs. We were told that divers in Martinique recently speared over 200 lionfish, that’s around 100 pounds, in half an hour.

Despite efforts to control their numbers, they keep coming back. And we still do not understand much about how lionfish populations spread. Some larvae may disperse with ocean currents. Many islands have lionfish populations living hundreds of feet deep that may come up and repopulate the shallow reefs.

The lionfish invasion is almost certainly too large and too widespread for marine parks and local governments to eradicate them. One of the most promising ideas for how to control lionfish numbers is to establish a commercial fishery for lionfish. There are certainly many more fishermen in the Caribbean than there are scientists or marine park managers. Lionfish, however, have not yet become popular enough in restaurants and in homes to drive demand. Perhaps part of the reason is that it’s an unfamiliar fish and people are not sure how to prepare it.

Between drilling coral samples on Martinique we speared nine lionfish.

Photo by Weldon Wade, Bermuda Ocean Explorers
Photo by Weldon Wade, Bermuda Ocean Explorers

Here’s one sure way to prepare a delicious lionfish meal.

Carefully remove venomous spines before preparing. Photo by Alice Alpert
Carefully remove venomous spines before preparing.
Photo by Alice Alpert


Lionfish ceviche

Delicious! And helping to protect Caribbean reefs.
Chopped lionfish fillets in juice of lemons, limes, and oranges
Fresh chopped red peppers, onion, and tomato
Salt, pepper, and fresh cilantro to taste


Tom DeCarlo