While most reports of a precipitous decline in an animal population are met with dismay, news of decreased sightings of the lionfish in some places is reason for optimism.
With its vivid candy stripes and incredible fringed, flowing fins, the football-sized lionfish is a beautiful creature to behold; Pterois volitans is also a fast-growing voracious eater that reproduces year-round. And it has no known predators in the eastern Atlantic and Caribbean, where it has taken up residence since the early 2000s, some believe as the result of people releasing the popular aquarium fish into coastal waters.
"It's actually hard to describe how a lionfish eats because they do it in a split second," said Kristen Dahl, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Florida. Lionfish use a complex series of tactics that no other fish in the world is known to employ. In the blink of an eye, a lionfish goes from silently hovering above its prey to flaring its fins, firing a disorienting jet of water from its mouth, unhinging its jaw and swallowing its meal whole ... The attacks happen so quickly that nearby fish don't seem to notice.
Jamaica was the first to come up with a solution, launching a campaign to decrease the population of lionfish in an effort to preserve regional reefs suffering from the species’ taste for native juvenile fish and crustaceans. Jamaica's National Environment and Planning Agency revealed a 66 percent drop in sightings of lionfish in coastal waters with depths of 75 feet, ABC News reported at the time.
This success and others have spawned copycat behavior in the United States and across the Caribbean — all focused on catching and eating lionfish.
In fact, Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) isn't just encouraging the practice of catching lionfish; they'll pay you for it, according to the Miami Herald. Fishermen can earn up to $5,000 for "harvesting" and photographing at least 25 fish. It's part of the Lionfish Challenge, an ongoing push to rid the state's waters of the invasive species with a series of events that run through mid-October.
If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em
Dayne Buddo, a marine ecologist who focuses on marine invaders at the Caribbean island's University of the West Indies, believes Jamaica's decline in lionfish is due to changing attitudes about the fish by local fisherman. Although those multiple flowing dorsal fins are exquisite to look at, they pack a powerful punch of venom. Buddo said that in the past, Jamaican fishermen had been hesitant to deal with the pain-inducing fish. However, now the species has become a popular food item.
As it turns out, the spines are easily removed and cooking neutralizes the poison; plus, they taste good. The white flesh of the fish is said to be similar in flavor to certain snappers and groupers.
"After learning how to handle them, the fishermen have definitely been going after them harder, especially spear fishermen. I believe persons here have caught on to the whole idea of consuming them," said Buddo.
In regions where they've become a problem, governments, conservation groups and even dive shops have been holding fishing tournaments and other promotions to try to make a dent in the crisis. Even the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) launched a campaign urging the public to "eat sustainable, eat lionfish!"
Generally we'd bemoan the idea of eating an animal population into oblivion, but for the lionfish, and other invasive species of its ilk, conservation gastronomy may be the most effective solution. Other dwindling species are spared the fate of the plate, ecosystems are preserved, and people still get to eat.
The fish can be prepared many ways: in chowder, sautéed, deep-fried, with lemon or lime in ceviche, panko breaded and fried or fried whole. (And to give you more options, there's a great lionfish nacho recipe in the gallery of recipes below.)
This story has been updated since it was published in April 2014.