The commercial fishing industry is chock-full of regulations. There are seasons and bag
limits designed to prevent overfishing of different species.
“They are so
plentiful out there,”
says Ethan Simpson, a fish-monger
Not so with lionfish. Any fisherman, at any time,
at Motts Channel Seafood
is welcome to take as many as possible.
Not only welcome,
in Wrightsville Beach. “There are so many
you’re never going to make a dent. You don’t have
to worry about overfishing them.”
Lionfish are instantly recognizable by their reddish, white-and-
black stripes, their wavy, fan-like pectoral fins, and more
than a dozen venom-tipped dorsal and anal spines. They are
native to the South Pacific and Indian oceans, and were brought
to this part of the world as exotic saltwater aquarium fish.
From aquariums, they made their way into the waters off the
East Coast. The prevailing theory for a while held that a hand-ful
washed into the Atlantic when Hurricane Andrew flooded
a Florida aquarium in 1992. Now, researchers suspect it’s the
home hobbyist trade that’s to blame.
Lionfish are notoriously difficult for amateurs to handle.
They can grow to 18 inches long and weigh up to 3 pounds.
And then there is the venom. They are aggressive predators that
will eat any smaller fish in the tank. It’s likely that well-meaning
Sunshine State fish tank hobbyists released lionfish into the
wild to get rid of them while giving them a chance to live.
They proliferated, migrating north from Florida, and first
were spotted in North Carolina waters in August 2002, the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
reports. Within a year, there were 19 different lionfish sightings
along the North Carolina coast.
Today, they are seen as far north as Long Island, NOAA says.
“They are pretty much everywhere now,” says Ryan McInnis,
local diver and spearfisherman. “If you go in a deep shipwreck,
with any sweep of the eye you’ll see a couple.”
Lionfish might be regarded as an attractive, colorful fish in
an aquarium, but in the Atlantic they are considered an invasive
species. In a home tank, the worst damage they can do is eat
the other fish. In the wild, they are a destructive, predatory fish
posing a serious threat to the ecology of local waters.
“When they first came on the radar there was a big panic,”
McInnis says. “People killed them and found juvenile grouper
in their bellies.”
To encourage hunting and eating lionfish as a method of
population control for the species with no known predators
and that reproduces year-round, NOAA launched a “lionfish as
food” campaign in 2010.
Education is a key component to population control, letting
the public know the problems lionfish pose off our coast and to
encourage catching and consuming.
organizer of the annual
Wrightsville Beach Spearfishing
Tournament until this year, added a
lionfish division a couple of years ago.
“We wanted to bring awareness that they
are good to eat,” he says. “As opposed to just going out and
wasting fish, we encourage people to start eating them. They
don’t swim very fast and you can collect a lot of them. It’s like
oysters. Why wouldn’t you fill your bucket with them, because
they taste good.”
There are a couple of obstacles, though.
In this region, lionfish tend to live in depths of 80 feet or
more, beyond the reach of most anglers.
“Hook-and-line methods aren’t effective, both because of the
depth they’re in around here and they don’t seem to take bait,”
Slow-moving lionfish are easy prey for spearfishermen,
but hunting them is not without risk. No diver wants to get
stung by a lionfish. The venom from the spines won’t be fatal
except in extremely rare cases, but it does cause intense local-ized
“I’m pretty cautious around them,” McInnis says. “When you
spear them, you have the problem of how do you get them to
the top and to the kitchen. I usually carry them in a heavy can-vas
bag or bucket that the spines won’t penetrate. Some people
take shears with them and cut off the spines.”
The effort is worth it, because the strange-looking, forebod-ing
creatures are quite tasty. They are increasingly on the menu
at local restaurants.
“I consider it more of a real mild flavor fish, almost like
flounder,” says Scott Surratt, executive chef at Ceviche’s. “It’s
really delicate and flaky. We serve it whenever we can get it from
the seafood market.”
Motts Channel frequently has lionfish for sale, on ice in the
display case alongside the traditional seafood like grouper and
snapper, usually caught by commercial spearfisherman Albie
Solano and his crew (“Face to Face,” June WBM).
“They are very good to eat, kind of like a sweet white meat,”
Simpson says. “It’s like sea bass, but a little sweeter, very mild.
As mild as they are, whatever you want to do with them is
good. Blackened is really good, fried is good, hand sautéed with
whatever seasoning you like. Rosemary, thyme, basil. Butter,
even. I prefer to keep things simple, to let the fish do the talk-ing,
and it’s one of those fish that definitely holds up.”
Keith Rhodes, owner and chef at Catch, has lionfish on the
menu about once a month.