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Lionfish derby offers real life experience

Gone Coastal

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Media contact: Amanda Nalley, 850-410-4943

Before August 2013, I had talked a lot about lionfish, but other than seeing them in tanks, I had never put my hands on one and never had one for dinner.

Lionfish is a hot topic right now. The population of this invasive, nonnative species has boomed exponentially in the past few years, and recent scientific studies indicate that this species may be negatively impacting our marine resources. Today, we are seeing them in places we’ve never seen them before, and there are no signs of them going away anytime soon.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has taken notice and is moving forward with actions to help control the population, from changing regulations to hosting a Lionfish Summit later this month (Oct. 22-24) in an effort to identify research and management gaps and brainstorm solutions to the lionfish issue. The summit will be in Cocoa Beach. Visit to learn more.

As the public information specialist for the FWC’s Division of Marine Fisheries Management, it is my job to reach out to the media and sometimes the public with lionfish information. I often get asked questions like, “Can you eat them? What do they taste like? How do you filet them without getting stuck by one of their venomous spines?” While I knew the answer to the questions, firsthand knowledge often trumps what you’ve read any day.

In August, I got plenty of firsthand knowledge as I attended the first ever Northeast Florida Lionfish Rodeo in Jacksonville. As the boats began to come in, I, with the help of coworker Alan Peirce, helped filet lionfish and, later, got to eat some. I admit, I was nervous as I began filleting my first one. Should I wear gloves? What if I get poked? What is the best way to get the meat off the fish?

The best thing I learned that day? It’s not as scary as it looks.

Lionfish have up to 18 spines that have venom. To be clear here, the spines are not hollow like a snake’s fangs. Instead, they are more like clear to opaque toothpicks with grooves. If you were to stick yourself, the skin covering the spine would push back, releasing the venom encapsulated in grooves along the spine. The venom is not in the meat of the fish. It is also susceptible to heat, so cooking the fish neutralizes it. The stings are painful, but can be treated with hot, but not scalding, water.

When filleting a lionfish, you have quite a few options to keep your hands and fingers safe. My personal favorite was a needle-resistant glove. Using it on my left hand only to hold the fish down, I used my ungloved hand to fillet. Others chose to go gloveless and hold the spines down. Another option that I tried but didn’t quite get comfortable with is clipping the spines with scissors. It was an effective method, but we had a lot of lionfish to fillet and it felt time-consuming. For the most part, once you figure out the spine issue, filleting the fish is easy. It is just like filleting any other fish you catch. Watch Lad Akins of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) fillet one in this video.

While there wasn’t much meat on the smaller ones, the effort was worth the return: a delicious, flaky white delicacy. It is not “fishy” in taste and has a nice consistency. I tried lionfish three ways that night: in a ceviche, fried whole and fillets cooked in a light panko and served with rice and a mango reduction. All three were delicious. More restaurants are starting to serve up lionfish, which can be harvested and sold commercially.

But the most rewarding part of being there was getting to talk to the public as they oohed and ahhed over the colorful fish. Some had never seen a lionfish. Many did not even know they were a problem in Florida’s waters.

The rodeo was a success, with more than 400 lionfish removed from the waters near Jacksonville. The largest was 17 inches and the smallest, a mere 3.5 inches. With the current best method of control being removal via nets or spearing devices, these grassroots efforts are one of the best means of limiting the population. In 2012, in an effort to encourage the public to participate in lionfish-control efforts, the FWC removed the requirement to have a recreational license when using specific gear to target lionfish, including hand-held nets, pole spears, Hawaiian slings and any device geared specifically for lionfish. The FWC also removed any and all bag limits on lionfish.

Learn more about lionfish by visiting and click on “Marine Life.”

FWC Facts:
Bees can see ultraviolet light.

Learn More at AskFWC