Scourge of the Lionfish Part 4: How Did The Most Beautiful Reef Fish Become the Seas’ Worst Invader?

As first posted on Mark Bittman's, September 18, 2012.

Over the course of the last week, our Saving the Ocean video crew touched shores and reefs of the Bahamas, Florida, and Mexico. Every time we landed on the sea floor, we quickly found lionfish. How could they have spread in the Atlantic so quickly after being nonexistent here just 20 years ago?

Something that keeps them in check in their native Indian Ocean and west Pacific haunts is missing here. It’s often the case that invaders transported to new haunts quickly build to plague-like levels. But I have an additional thought in this case. Before widespread overfishing, Atlantic reefs held enormous numbers of fishes of dozens of species. They all managed to find enough food to support themselves. With so many fish depleted by our hooks, nets, and traps, all the food that once made groupers, snappers, sea basses, and others was available to go elsewhere.

A Puerto Moreles, Mexico fisherman displays the venemous spins of a lionfish.

Lionfish may be, in that sense, the incarnation of all the other fish we’ve already eaten. How they’re overdoing it just might reflect, at least in part, how we’ve overdone it.

I’ve worked against overfishing for two decades, and for most of that time I’ve written and spoken about both unsustainably produced seafood we should steer clear of, and sustainable seafood we can enjoy pretty much guilt free. But there’s never before been a seafood about which I could say that eating it actually helps the ocean and helps other forms of ocean life. Or a sea creature about which I could say that killing it is a good thing. But the lionfish is it.

Lionfish being packed for export in Cozumel.

Whole deep-fried lionfish, one of many ways to prepare this tasty fish.

It’s a sad commentary about how we’re changing the world that killing and eating one of the world’s most beautiful fish—as long as they’re from the Caribbean or Atlantic Ocean—actually helps. I guess the one good thing in all this is: they are delicious.

To see lionfish and the scientists, fishermen, and chefs whose lives they’ve tangled, watch for Saving the Ocean this fall on PBS television, and on the Web.

Carl Safina is founder of Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University, a MacArthur Fellow, and winner of a James Beard Award for his seafood writing. His books include, “A Sea In Flames; The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout,” and “The View From Lazy Point; A Natural Year in an Unnatural World,” which won the 2012 Orion Award. His series “Saving the Ocean” will be premiering this fall on PBS Television.

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