Call For a Tow

Here Come the Lion Fish


It wasn’t until we got to the Caribbean last year that we heard about the Lion Fish’s invasion of the Caribbean. Possibly one of the most strangely beautiful of the fishes in the oceans, until recently, it was not found in the Caribbean. Now, sightings are often reported from the eastern to the western Caribbean and even on the US east coast as far north as Rhode Island.

Lionfish are dangerous to humans as their spines and fins contain a highly venomous toxin which can cause excruciating pain and even death in some cases.

This extraordinary but nasty piece of work has almost as many names as it has venomous spines. Around Hawaii it’s called the Hawaiian Turkey fish; in other parts of the world it is a cobra fish, zebra fish, dragon fish and tiger fish. Its predatory nature is reflected in many of the names. Paradoxically though, it’s called firecod, red fire fish, featherfin and butterfly cod in places like Australia. These more complimentary names no doubt come from the amazing beauty of these creatures.

To quote Grant’s Book of Fishes (the Australian fish bible): “the red fire fish attains 15 inches; it is a dazzling exhibition of feather fins and stripes of cream, yellow, pink, scarlet or warm brown. The spines and rays of dorsal and pectoral fins are extended fantastically beyond the general levels of the fin membranes; the coloured bars and stripes make for an outstanding example of camouflage as disruptive coloration.”

Unlike in the Pacific and Indian Oceans where they exist with their predators, in the Caribbean, they have no predators. They are ravenous predators themselves. In fact, they prey on almost all fish smaller than themselves.

Grant goes on to describe this cute killer’s modus operandi. They wait patiently often lying upside down in coral formations where it looks like it is part of the reef. When small fish or crustaceans come to examine its algae like appendages, the lion fish then moves in a slow undulating fashion, spreading first one pectoral fin, then the other as it backs its prey into a corner, by now engulfed by the large fan like fins. The final attack is lightning fast. The jaws open simultaneously, the gill case cover opens and the floor of the mouth drops, causing a powerful jet of water into the mouth, which ‘hoovers’ the prey into the mouth.

How they got to the Caribbean was unknown for a long time. A popular theory is that they were inadvertently released from an aquarium or many aquaria. Small lion fish are popular among salt water aquarists. In fact, when professional fish importers discovered that a female can spawn over 30,000 eggs at one spawning, the markets were flooded with inexpensive exotic and dangerous fish. Many an aquarist learned the hard way the importance of proper handling of their acquisitions.

Possibly, after learning that the pretty little lion fish in the fish tank was eating many of its neighbours, the soft hearted aquarist took the fish from his seaside home and released it into the sea, never imagining the devastating consequences.

Becky Bauer spent 30 years as a wild and domestic animal rescuer, rehabber and educator in the U.S. Now a scuba diver and award winning journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean, she states: “The beautiful yet deadly Lionfish’s native range is the Indo-Pacific. Most of the Lionfish now found in the Atlantic and Caribbean were proven through DNA testing, to come from only three Lionfish believed to have been accidentally released from an aquarium during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.”

As previously mentioned females lay as many as 30,000 eggs several times a year. These eggs float to the surface and are carried far and wide by wind and current.

In the Indo Pacific these eggs are preyed upon by birds and fish which keep the lionfish populations in check. These predators appear to be sadly absent or in insufficient numbers in the Atlantic Caribbean area. More depressing still, the average size of the lionfish in the Atlantic Caribbean is between 20” to 22”, some 2” or 3” larger than the Indo Pacific lion fish.

They appear to have an insatiable appetite for almost anything they can catch. They swallow and devour fish and crustaceans two thirds their own size. Their stomachs can expand 30 times the normal size. A study was conducted in 2007 on 10 reefs with Lionfish populations and 10 without. What was observed was astounding: the lionfish ate 80% of the native fish! One lionfish ate 20 wrasse in less than 30 minutes!

This invasion of lionfish is a tragedy on a number of levels, firstly they eat the fish and crustaceans that clean and protect the health of the reef. In their wake they leave a dead or dying reef.In addition, they eat the fish and crustaceans upon which both commercial and recreational fisheries depend.

Throughout our travels in the Caribbean, we heard that spear fishermen are being encouraged to kill any lion fish they encounter, and this I began to do recently. Since their defense against any would-be predator is their long, ornate and colourful toxic spines, they have no need for speed to escape. This makes them easy targets for even the most visually impaired spear fisherman like myself.

So, whenever Liz and I were snorkelling and spotted one, I speared it with my pole spear and left it to die in the water. Later we found out this was not the best course of action for two reasons: 1) the dead animal can still pose a threat with its toxic spines to critters that feed on its carcass. 2) the flesh of the filleted lion fish is delicious. In fact it is becoming a popular menu item in ‘chi chi’ restaurants in North America. Apparently in some circles, it’s the thing to do- eat a lion fish and help save the ocean.

After I thought about all those rich green types shelling out big bickies in fancy restaurants eating the lion fish I could dine on for free, I redoubled my efforts and actually now target lionfish as a food fish. Now, the lion fish I spear go into a special ‘lion fish only’ hamper kept in the dinghy. All other speared fish go into another bucket.

To clean the lion fish I always use protective gloves. The cleaning procedure begins by cutting off all spines and fins and carefully disposed of usually buried in the sand onshore- NOT thrown into the ocean. I’ve developed a simple technique using pliers and wire cutters. Once the prickly bits are removed, the shorn fish can be safely filleted like any other reef fish. It makes delicious ceviche and can be cooked any number of ways.

Without a doubt we’ll be hearing more about this new menace in the years to come. For my part I’ll do what I can to put a dent in their populations while I put an extra bit of protein on the table, and hope you can too.

Scorpion fish are sometimes mistaken for lion fish. They have large, heavily ridged and spined heads, venomous spines on their back and fins with a groove and venom sack and are well camouflaged with tassels, warts and colored specks. Some scorpion fish can change their color to better match their surroundings. A master of disguise and deception, they look like a piece of coral or sand covered rock and can blend in with their surroundings and go unnoticed by their prey.