The Scoop on Lionfish…My New Favorite Food

Invasive.  Likely the only word that comes to mind when you think of the lionfish.  Originally indigenous to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, Ren and I have witnessed their presence as far reaching as the NC coast, our stomping grounds, down to the Bahamas, over to Honduras, Belize, South Florida, all throughout the Caribbean.  The invasive red lionfish (Pterois volitans), 97% are red the rest are devil firefish, has caused much trepidation for biologists, fishermen and spearos alike.  Although there is one published account of a Bahamian grouper feeding on a lionfish, failed feeding trials suggest that the lionfish have no native predators.  This could change over time if the lionfish population continues to flourish and prey for native species diminishes due to negative impacts from the lionfish.  Stranger things have happened than one species learning to eat another. Lionfish eat from coral reef.  Identified prey includes: fairy basslet, bridled cardinalfish, white grunt, bicolor damselfish, wrasses, striped parrotfish, dusky blenny, Nassau grouper, and yellow tail snapper. Initial work looking at crustacean prey suggests that lionfish may also eat the juvenile spiny lobster (Panulirus argus), which means big problems for places with a history of commercial spiny lobster fishing.  Lionfish are also cannibalistic.  With ever increasing numbers and as the lionfish becomes more ubiquitous, we must evolve as the best natural predator to the lionfish.  And what a perfect predator we are.

As Ren and I travel around on Nila Girl, our 35′ Pearson sailing vessel, we find lionfish in virtually every port of call, which makes it a really reliable source of protein.  At first we did what any predator would do when face to face with a poisonous species, we stayed away from the fish.  The red lionfish is covered with venomous dorsal, pectoral, and anal spines. He has greatly elongated dorsal fin spines (11 dorsal and 7 anal spines); the membranes of all fins are spotted in color.  When these spines penetrate a potential enemy of the fish, the poisonous mucus is injected and the side effects begin.  The sensation of the lionfish sting (I know this because I had to wipe poor Ren’s tears away one beautiful afternoon after being hit by one) is like being stung by the biggest wasp you can imagine…well…probably not that big.  If this happens to you, stick the affected appendage in the hottest water you can tolerate and wait.  It’s that easy, you hope anyway.


Ren spearing a red lionfish in the Bahamas.

With careful hunting the lionfish makes easy and delicious table fare.  Once speared you must “lip” the fish like a bass, taking care not to let the beautiful work of art slide it’s way back down your spear, spearing you in the process.  Take control, lip the fish, then use a pair of sharp scissors to cut away the spines.  After the spines are cut away, it is safe to move in and brain the poor beast, putting it out of any misery you have caused it.  Here’s where things get interesting…in the kitchen (or galley).  The lionfish has quickly become one of my favorite fish for the table.  It’s delicate and mild tasting meat make perfect ceviche and carpaccio (for recipes refer to the Gourmet Galley on our Nila Girl website, not yet posted though).  Only when making the raw platter as mentioned above do we fillet the fish.  The fish are typically on the smaller side and are best enjoyed by cooking in a pan, whole.  Cooking the fish whole yields the most meat.  This goes for any fish you harvest, by the way.

Now’s your chance.  Do something great for the environment of the Caribbean and eastern US seaboard while doing something good for your body and taste buds.  Eat lionfish.  No more slaughtering them for sport.  Always, always, always eat what you kill or choose not to kill at all.  The lionfish did not invade our waters on it’s own.  It was introduced by humans, probably predominately from aquarium releases.  The problem is our fault and the lionfish deserves the same respect as any other living creature.  But do enjoy…because I will!


Photo courtesy Ryan McInnis of In-Sea Worldwide

About Ashley Chapman

Ashley is co-owner and operator of Evolve Freediving as well as a 3x World Record holder and 12x US National Record holder in freediving. She lives with her husband Ren and 3-year-old Ani on their trimaran sailboat in North Carolina in the summer months and the Caribbean in the winter.