Lionfish Removal and Awareness Returns to Pensacola Bay

Want to help make an edible invader disappear? It’s time to put some lionfish on the barbie.

For the past three decades, lionfish, a beautiful, yet prickly resident of the Indo-Pacific, have spread from the Atlantic Coast to the Gulf and have started calling the Pensacola Bay Area home.

Lionfish

In recent years, the lionfish population has exploded. Their spiny-finned young are practically inedible to other fish, and their voracious appetites see them quickly overwhelming the reefs that our local fish call home.

But here’s the good news: Lionfish taste fabulous — once you get past those spiny fins.

Filets are tender, white and flaky, like a little baby triggerfish or scamp grouper, said Chef Gus Silivos. Mighty fine praise indeed.

Cooking lionfish

The third annual Lionfish Awareness and Removal Day comes to Pensacola’s Plaza De Luna Park from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on May 20-21, pulling in celebrity chefs, tireless competing scuba divers and a few thousand hungry visitors.

It’s part tournament (for divers), while we landlubbers and foodies can sample some of the remarkable flavors of lionfish served up by celebrity chefs and vendors.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, thankfully with a shortened acronym of FWC, sponsors the event through its Reef Rangers program. The park is located at 900 S Palafox Street, Pensacola, where Palafox cul-de-sacs into Pensacola Bay.

The event nearly tripled last year. Celebrity chefs such as Gus Silivos, Dan Dunn and Wayan Sumadi displayed their culinary skills as they turned the tables on the unwelcomed reef resident.

Gus Silivos at the lionfish festival

Lionfish on the barbie — with grits? Check. Lionfish nuggets? Yep. Lionfish sashimi topped with salty-fresh roe, washed down with a frosty beverage? Ohhhhh yes. And we sampled lionfish the festival favorite way: on a stick — and on chips, thanks to the up-and-coming smoky lionfish dip from Edible Invaders.

More than 8,000 lionfish were collected over the weekend, and this year, organizers hope to make it grow again.

Event-goers can enjoy:

  • Lionfish tastings
  • Filet demonstrations
  • Family activities
  • Celebrity chef cook-off competition
  • Raffles and prizes
  • Local vendors

You can pitch in too! Certified diver? Contact our local dive shops and gear up. Dive Pros, MBT Divers and Scuba Shack are among the top shops in the area, sending teams of lionfish hunters into the not-too-deep to jab the little varmints right where they squat.

It seemed cute several years ago when a lionfish landed on the end of a rod and reel.

An aquarium fish on the lam, folks thought, just like those famed gators prowling under New York City. Lionfish were first reported off Florida’s Atlantic coast near Dania Beach (Broward County) in 1985.

But what’s happened since then has seemed more of a “Sum of All Fears” for local reef fish —

and the anglers and industry that rely on them. Reef Rangers reported that over 60 different species of fish and animals were identified in the stomach contents of lionfish. No license plates, but you get the picture.

Some lionfish facts, courtesy of Reef Rangers:

  • Florida holds the world record on the largest lionfish by length: 18.78 inch caught by Capt. Jimmy Nelson off Islamorada in 2015.
  • Lionfish stomachs can expand to 30 times its size.
  • Lionfish can inhabit depth ranges from 0 to 900 feet, salinity ranges from riverine and brackish water to full-strength seawater, and water temperatures as low as 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Lionfish can consume prey that is more than half their body length.

That’s why we need your help. So bring your appetite!

Divers, Gear Up

A recreational fishing license is not required to collect lionfish from Florida waters when using a pole spear, a Hawaiian sling, a handheld net, or any spearing device that is designed and/or marketed exclusively for lionfish.

  • Spears with a paralyzer or 3-prong trident tip with barbs work the best. 
  • Divers use a needle-proof container, such as a Zookeeper Lionfish Containment Unit or dry bag.
  • Wear puncture-resistant gloves.
  • Bring your appetite!

Interested in selling lionfish that you collect? A saltwater products license is required to sell lionfish to wholesale dealers.

Check out Reef Rangers on Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/lionfishreefrangers/

Reef Rangers website:

 http://reefrangers.com/event-info

Lionfish World Championship website:

 http://lionfishworldchampionship.com

Volunteers:

Contact Rick O’Connor, Florida Sea Grant extension office, ROC1@ufl.edu.