By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
For those who don’t live near the Alabama Gulf Coast, you might not be aware that Gov. Robert Bentley declared a Lionfish Awareness Day recently.
The reason for the public declaration was to coincide with the Lions on the Line event that was held at the Flora-Bama Marina and Flora-Bama Ole River Bar & Grill, which sit astride the Florida-Alabama line, hence Lions on the Line.
The Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD), Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission and the NUISANCE Group teamed up to hold the event that encouraged the diving community to take as many lionfish as possible from the reefs off the Alabama coast and bring them in to be prepared for the public by well-known chefs from the Gulf Coast.
For those not familiar with the lionfish, it is an invasive species that likely was dumped out of an aquarium into waters in south Florida. The species, which is native to the Indo-Pacific region, has spread like wildfire in the favorable conditions of the Gulf of Mexico and south Atlantic areas.
Because they are voracious consumers of baitfish species and juvenile reef fish, lionfish pose a threat to the native species that inhabit the vast reef system off the Alabama Gulf Coast. Lionfish also are prolific spawners. An adult female lionfish can produce as many as 2 million eggs per year.
Alabama Marine Resources Director Chris Blankenship said lionfish are spreading among the reef system at an alarming rate.
“We have so many reefs out there in shallow and deep water. When we go out and put down cameras we’ll see 25 to 30 lionfish on some reefs,” Blankenship said of the 12,000 or so reefs off the Alabama coast. “On other reefs we may see three or four. But almost every time we take a look at a reef, we see lionfish no matter the depth.
“The populations on our reefs are definitely still increasing. Having events like this to raise awareness of the lionfish threat and get more people to dive and remove lionfish is good for the ecosystem.”
From the seafood marketing aspect of the situation, Blankenship hopes to create an interest from the public for the tasty lionfish filets.
“We’re trying to create a market for lionfish,” Blankenship said. “The demand is there. It’s just a matter of getting people who dive and commercial fishermen to be aware of that. If we can get them to catch these species that are invasive and are harming other native species on the reefs, that would be good for them and the ecosystem.”
The problem with lionfish is they are not often caught on hook and line. The vast majority of lionfish are captured by divers who either spear the fish or use capture devices. Blankenship hopes new technology will allow easier removal of the lionfish from reefs in the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Coast and Caribbean.
“There is a lot of research being done now on types of traps or cages,” he said. “NOAA (Fisheries) is funding some research in the Florida Keys to see if they can catch lionfish without damaging the other populations. We should have some results on that next year. A lot of work is being done to find solutions other than having divers go down and shoot them, which is a limiting factor in removing lionfish.
“We’ve seen a few more fish this year that were caught on hook and line. It’s becoming a little more common, but you have to be right over the reef. Most people don’t fish right on top of the reef. Most people anchor up and end up a few hundred feet from the reef. The lionfish don’t venture far from the actual reef. Lionfish are beautiful fish and are delicious fish, but they are damaging to the ecosystem.”
The problem with lionfish is they are not predator forage because of the venomous spines on their fins. Only the spines are venomous and the flesh is not affected.
Videos on YouTube that show larger species of fish, like grouper, swallowing a lionfish only to spit it out a couple of seconds later.
“When people dive or when we have the camera down, lionfish are not really scared of anything,” Blankenship said. “They don’t swim off. You can get right up to them with a pole spear and spear them. They really don’t have any natural enemies so they don’t have that instinct to flee. Without natural enemies, that’s why they’re becoming so prolific.”
The lionfish flesh is perfectly safe, but the spines should be carefully avoided when fileting the fish.
That’s where Lions on the Line provides a public service by demonstrating numerous ways to prepare lionfish in delicious ways.
“That we can bring these groups and chefs together for an event shows there is a concern in the community,” Blankenship said. “There are a lot of people trying to do something about this. It’s great to build those coalitions.”
Chris Sherrill, executive chef at Flora-Bama Yacht Club who started the NUISANCE Group to promote the use of underutilized fish and animal species, said the goal of his group and events like Lions on the Line is to raise public awareness of the lionfish threat.
“We’re trying to educate the public because lionfish are invasive and destroy our reefs,” Sherrill said. “They eat everything they can get their mouths around. They eat juvenile reef species like snapper, grouper and triggerfish. They put a real hurting on them. We’ve seen the devastating effects already.
“By having lionfish derbies, we’re able to educate the public about how safe lionfish are to eat and the destruction they do to our reefs. It’s a really cool event.”
Sherrill and his cohorts provided a demonstration on how to filet lionfish safely.
“I’ve done it blindfolded before just to prove how safe it is,” he said. “We try to show people everything about lionfish. When we talk to people about lionfish, they are shocked with the staggering numbers they hear. Then they want to know how to get involved.
“We had good participation for a first-year event. We had 1,662 lionfish brought in by the six teams of divers. And we had seven chefs that prepared lionfish for the public to sample.”
Sherrill said lionfish filets have endless possibilities when it comes to the kitchen.
“You can have it raw, grilled, sautéed, fried, baked,” he said. “The lionfish lends itself to every way you can possibly prepare it. It’s a fun fish to work with. I’d like to see it show up on more and more menus.
“Whole Foods currently carries the lionfish filets and a handful of Publix in south Florida are carrying them. We hope that continues to spread.”
The Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission provided prize money of $3,500 that was awarded for most lionfish, largest lionfish and smallest lionfish. Team Niuhi (Andy Ross, Barry Shively, Travis Griggs, and Chris Simon) swept first place in all three categories and won $2,000 with 758 lionfish, largest at 409 mm (16.1 inches) and smallest at 62 mm (2.44 inches).
In the culinary competition, Brody Olive of Voyagers at Perdido Beach Resort won the People’s Choice award, while Scott Smith of Key’s Southern Spice, Tim Chyrek of McGuire’s and Brandon Burleson of Central in Montgomery each qualified for the upcoming World Food Championships Steak category for their surf and turf creations with lionfish and steak.
PHOTOS: (Chandra Wright, David Rainer) Marine Resources Director Chris Blankenship shows off one of the largest lionfish that was brought to the check station during the Lions on the Line event. This fish was 3mm smaller than the largest lionfish. To illustrate the impact lionfish have on baitfish populations, this fish has three cigar minnows in its mouth. Lionfish filets are excellent table fare, especially in the Lionfish Tacos dish that Haikel Harris, sous chef at Flora-Bama Yacht Club, offered to those in attendance.