It’s Open Season on the Beautiful but Invasive Lionfish


One of the reasons we love diving is because of all of the amazing sea life we get to see up close, especially a vibrant or ornate fish. However, if you are diving off the U.S. Atlantic of Gulf of Mexico coastline, or in the Caribbean, one of the most spectacular fish here is also one of the most destructive.

Two species of lionfish, the red and common (or devil), have become highly invasive, and NOAA has given the green light to remove as many of these fish as possible from Atlantic waters.

A Little About the Lionfish

The lionfish is a genus of twelve different species whose native habitat is the Indo-Pacific region and the Red Sea. They are not normally found in other parts of the world, including the Atlantic or Caribbean. These fish are beautiful and unique, with long, venomous, spiny fins that spread out like peacock feathers. Their name comes from the way they stalk their pray and leap on them, similar to terrestrial lions.

How Did Lionfish End up in the Atlantic?

Fisherman noticed lionfish in the Atlantic beginning in the 1980s. The reason for the spread of lionfish into the Atlantic is not known for sure, though many believe some were released into Miami’s Biscayne Bay when Hurricane Andrew destroyed an exhibit at a South Florida aquarium in 1992. A more likely reason for their presence far from their native habitat is they can be difficult to keep as home aquarium fish, so owners have been releasing them into Florida waters for years.

Why Are Their Numbers Soaring?

Once they were introduced, these fish have spread unchecked over the past twenty years. They have been found as far south as Brazil and as far north as Rhode Island. They don’t do well in cold water but they thrive in the warm waters around the U.S. and Caribbean.

Their numbers are increasing at an alarming rate because:

  • Lionfish who live outside of their native habitat have no natural predators to keep their numbers in check.
  • One female can lay more than 15,000 eggs per breeding cycle, resulting in two million eggs per year.
  • Lionfish are highly resistant to infection and disease.
  • Their fertilized egg masses are spread on ocean currents and contain a repellent which wards off potential predators.

Why Are Lionfish Considered Invasive?

Lionfish are becoming a commercial, ecological and environmental threat to our oceans.

  • Lionfish are voracious eaters and their stomachs can expand to 30 times its normal volume.
  • They will eat anything they can: sea horses, lobsters, crabs, octopus and the cleaner fish and shrimp that keep the reefs and bigger fish healthy.
  • They feed on juvenile fish species, the fish we like to eat as well as game fish, so those fish are no longer reaching maturity and laying eggs, thereby reducing their numbers.

Open Season Declared on Lionfish

Because lionfish are eating native species and their food supply, breeding at an exponential rate, and living a long time, organizations interested in preserving our already threatened reefs have declared that humans need to become their predators. Some organizations such as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission support lionfish hunting and hold events and tournaments for divers and fishermen.

Catching Lionfish

eradicate lionfish toolSpearfishing is the primary way to catch lionfish. They can be caught on a hook and line but it’s hit or  miss.

Because of the way lionfish stalk their prey, they spend a lot of time remaining still, making them an easy target. You can buy special spears designed for hunting these predators such as this Eradicate Lionfish Tool.

If you are using a spear, avoid damaging the coral and other things beneath the fish. Their spines are venomous and pack a walloping sting so you’ll also want a holding bag. Don’t leave the fish behind because predatory fish such as eels and barracuda have begun to associate divers with food in some areas where lionfish hunting is very common.

Lionfish Are Delicious to Eat!

Florida restaurants have also played their part in making lionfish a more popular food, and have created a plethora of tasty recipes to cook them. They can be breaded and fried, grilled, broiled and as ceviche, to name a few ways. They are high in omega-3 fatty acids, low in saturated fats and have low levels of heavy metals such as mercury. Be sure to read about how to clean them without getting injured if you plan to hunt and eat your own.

The next time you’re looking for a diving and fishing expedition, consider the Atlantic or Gulf coast, or the Caribbean. Not only will you find a fun and rewarding target, you can honestly say that you are helping to preserve the habitat for the rest of the fish!

Need some gear for your next lionfish hunting adventure? Check out our huge online inventory at!

Have you hunted or eaten lionfish? Let us know in the comments section below!

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Article Name
It's Open Season on the Beautiful but Invasive Lionfish
Lionfish are a serious threat to Atlantic and Caribbean reef ecosystems due to their voracious appetites, high breeding rate and lack of natural predators. Divers are stepping up to control this invasive species.

4 responses to “It’s Open Season on the Beautiful but Invasive Lionfish”

  1. Linnea Grauer says:

    I was diving in Belize about 4 years ago, which was the first time I’d seen lionfish while diving. At that time, I didn’t know they were invasive, but learned quickly as our divemasters hunted some of them. The divemasters were associated with a research lab and were bringing them back to the lab.

  2. Alec Vancas says:

    I had some lionfish a few years back and it was delicious. I haven’t had it since, but would love to eat it again.

  3. M. Davis says:

    We actually purchase lionfish when it’s available in our local market. In my opinion, it’s one of the best white flakey fishes you can eat.

  4. Chuck says:

    This is something I haven’t tried, but from the sounds of it, I need to!

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