The first lionfish came into view on our second dive of the morning. It was hovering inches above a horizontal beam. Zebra striped with feathery fins splayed out in a showy display, there was no mistaking the message: keep away.
I glanced down at my depth gauge. 50 feet. The current was mild, and the visibility reasonable good for scuba diving around oil and gas platforms off Louisiana’s coast. We had a clear view of the fish in all its beautiful, venomous glory.
Tenney Flynn, chef and co-owner of GW Fins restaurant in the French Quarter, was swimming near my elbow. He reached for his spear, a shrunken trident-looking device called a Hawaiian Sling. I grabbed the mesh bag clipped to my waist.
Flynn swam in closer, but kept about two arms-lengths away from his prey. The fish stayed put, turning its gaze in our direction, but showing no fear. Truth be told, it looked bored. Predators usually give it wide berth.
Flynn took aim and in his first shot nailed it. The lionfish rocketed back against the platform leg, its dangerous fins swaying in the water column like pretty plumage. Even injured, it could still deliver a painful shot of venom right through a wetsuit.
With a pair of blunt-nosed scissors, Flynn reached for the fish, now speared shish-kabob style, and got to work clipping the needle-like fins. It took just a few minutes to denude the animal of its potent weapon and deposit it in my mesh sack.
A short while later, we repeated the whole procedure and then we swam back to the boat.
Flynn climbed aboard, slipping off his fins, mask and scuba cylinder. The ice chest in the bow was filling up with the day’s catch — a couple of decent almaco jacks, two scamp — and now two diminutive lionfish, dwarfed by the others nestled in the ice.
A big lionfish is 16 inches in length. Most are about 8 inches. Our were probably in the 10-inch range, though we didn’t measure them.
Still, Flynn’s catches were two of the most exciting of the day. Lionfish have no business being in the northern Gulf of Mexico. An invasive species, they’re bad for the reefs — but delicious to eat.
Flynn smiled as he closed the ice chest. “Considering what I do for a living, the way I look at fish is, ‘How am I’m going to cook you,'” he said. “I have that same problem at aquariums.”
Lionfish may or may not be on the menu on Monday, June 30, at GW Fins’ “Trash Fish Dinner” a multiple-course locavore event featuring under-utilized seafood from the Gulf of Mexico.
Flynn hopes to get his hands on enough of the ray-finned beauties to make a course. But it’s iffy. There’s no commercial market for them — yet.
Pterois volitans, commonly known as the red lionfish, and Pterois miles, its cousin the devil lionfish, are native to the Indo-Pacific, but in the past few years have been spotted throughout the northern Gulf, from Pensacola to Louisiana, as well as on the Atlantic side of Florida.
With no known local predators, a voracious appetite and reproductive abilities that make rabbits seem restrained, lionfish have become a serious problem for local ecosystems.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission last week took aim with several new regulations, including imposing a ban on importing live lionfish for aquariums or other purposes. Also this spring, Florida launched a new app, called Report Florida Lionfish, to gather data and encourage fishermen and tourists to report sightings.
The first sighting of lionfish in Florida waters came in 1986, off Dania Beach, on the southern east coast, said Amanda Nalley, a spokeswoman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. By 2011, they had moved into the northern Gulf of Mexico, she said.
Two years ago, they were rarely spotted on the reefs that make the oil platforms off Louisiana’s coast fertile hunting grounds for fishermen, both with hook and line and scuba and spear gun. But this summer, the lionfish are prevalent.
How they got into the wild waters off Louisiana and Florida is up for speculation, but “the likelihood that they were an intentional or unintentional aquarium release is high,” Nalley said, “though there is no way to be 100 percent sure.”
Red and brown striped with fins that would make a peacock jealous, lionfish are popular with aquarium hobbyists. They’re often the star attraction in fish tanks.
Controlling the fish in the wild will be hard. “The larvae floats on the current,” Nalley said. The fish produce two egg masses, each holding 15,000 eggs, for 30,000 eggs per spawn.
It’s also hard to catch them on hook and line, though Nalley has received photos from folks who have. “That’s why ‘Report Florida Lionfish’ is important. One of the things we ask is about gear,” she said. “It’s also important for anglers to know about them, so if they pull one of these up, they don’t go, ‘This is an aquarium fish,’ and toss it back in.”
In the new Great Maya Reef exhibit at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, about 15 lionfish have a prime spot in a circular tank with signage that reads “Alien Invaders.”
Aquarium staff collected the fish while on dive trips off the Florida Keys and put them on display to show the problems created by invasive species. “They’re a dramatic change to the environment and a veracious predator,” said James Arnold, the aquarium’s senior husbandry curator. “A lionfish can eat anything the size of its mouth.”
After rounding up enough for the exhibit, the aquarium folks had some to spare for a dinner during their collecting trip. “We caught a larger one and filleted it,” Arnold said. “It’s really good, white meat.”
Flynn first cooked them in Florida, when he was the guest chef at a lionfish spearfishing rodeo in Boynton Beach. John Perruccico, an avid spearfisherman and president of Southbend Equipment Co., a commercial kitchen equipment supplier, helped organize the rodeo and invited Flynn down.
At the event, about 100 divers killed about 800 fish. “I was cooking them fast and furious,” Flynn said. “The idea was to publicize that they’re good to eat, and you’re supposed to kill every one you see just to be a good citizen.”
Creating a commercial market for lionfish, though, will be tough. “You have to shoot an awful lot of them to make it worth your while,” Flynn said. “I’m not sure they’ll make it to the restaurant level, unless they come up with another harvesting method.”