Over 150 citizens from Punta Gorda and surrounding communities discovered that Lionfish makes for a tasty meal at the recent 2012 TIDE Fest on 14th October, when they overcame their fears and tried a free sample at the Lionfish free tasting booth at the event.
The booth, organized by the TIDE Research and Monitoring Department, using Lionfish kindly donated by Reef CI and EcoMar, aimed to provide the public with the facts about Lionfish, correct the hearsay about them being poisonous to eat, and give them a tasty lionfish snack in return for answering a questionnaire. Eyes widened and jaws dropped as Victor Williams, a Community Researcher for TIDE, gave frequent expert demonstrations on how to prepare lionfish safely, answering any questions in the process, such as whether lionfish are poisonous or venomous, what to do if you get stung, where they came from, how they got here in the first place and what each of us can do to help control this environmentally destructive invader which is currently threatening fisheries livelihoods throughout Belize and the wider Caribbean.
Response to the initiative was extremely positive, with everyone from Police Officers to school children, Mayans to Mennonites, farmers and even the BDF queuing up to try this strange looking fish that they had heard so many rumors about! It turns out that there is a lot of misinformation circulating about the fish, with many believing that you can die from eating the meat, or from getting stung.
In fact, the meat is perfectly safe to eat, the venom being contained only in the spines.The questionnaires showed that most people thought this fish tasted like snapper or grouper, with the majority saying they would be willing to pay $3-5 BZ per lb for filleted lionfish meat if it were for sale in the PG market. People were relieved to find out that the venom can be neutralized by simply holding a cloth soaked in water as hot as one can stand on the affected area for 30-60 minutes. In an emergency while out on a boat, one can use the hot stream of water coming out the back of the engine; enough to get back to shore to a hot water source. Key results from the survey can be seen in the pie charts in the photo album.
How did lionfish get here?
The spread of the lionfish invasion in the Caribbean over the last 10-15 years is well documented. Their native habitat is the Indian and Pacific Oceans. However, due to the popularity of lionfish in the aquarium trade in recent years, many of these beautiful fish were exported live to North America, and this has likely lead to its introduction into the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and since 2008, the Belize Barrier Reef.
Why is this so bad?
Plain and simple; they eat everything! So voracious is their appetite that often prey fish almost as large as the lionfish themselves have been found stuffed down their gullets, tails hanging out of the mouth while the head digests in their stomach! With no natural predators in the Caribbean, this highly intelligent and adaptable fish has been able to fill top predator niches left vacant Caribbean-wide by rife overfishing in the region, changing its group roaming style hunting behavior from its native ranges to a solitary loitering approach, minimizing the amount of effort and time spent looking for food, and maximizing the amount of food it can consume and time it can spend reproducing. Lionfish can produce tens of thousands of eggs many times a year, allowing them to multiply faster than native fish species.
As a result of the survey, it was clear that we need to start seeing lionfish for sale in restaurants and at the market, as there is a demand and value for its meat.
The more people that try this fish, the more people will realize that it tastes just as good as other fish, and they are actually playing a part in the conservation of our oceans and helping to reduce the impact of lionfish on our local fisheries.
TIDE has been conducting a research project this year on the lionfish invasion in Southern Belize in partnership with Texas A & M University, SEA and Sarteneja based Blue Ventures. The study aimed to characterize the invasion and track the spread of lionfish in this region, in order to gauge its future impact on local fishing. The gut contents were analysed of over 300 of the 900 lionfish caught during the lionfish competition at this year’s Placencia Lobster Fest, showing dietary differences between Placencia and Punta Gorda populations. Results will be made available soon.
In the meantime, EAT LIONFISH!!!
Thanks for reading!
James R. Foley, TIDE Science Director
TIDE Research & Monitoring Department