Can You Eat Lionfish?

Originating from the warm tropical waters of the Indian and South Pacific Oceans, lionfish are known to be ferocious predators. 

Due to their ruthless nature, it has been observed that their population is steadily increasing. So can consuming the lionfish be the solution? 

More importantly: is it safe to eat these deadly creatures? The short answer is: Yes, you can safely eat lionfish without any harmful side effects. 

But before you go fishing in the Caribbean, it is crucial to understand that eating lionfish isn’t as simple as catching it and throwing it in the oven, as that could potentially kill you. Read on to learn more.

Why Should We Be Eating Lionfish in The First Place? 

As we’ll discuss later in the article, it takes more effort to make lionfish safe for consumption than most seafood that you likely already consume. 

So why go through the effort instead of just enjoying some salmon or tuna? Because as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration argues, “If you can’t beat them, eat them.” 

As discussed earlier, lionfish are natives of the Indian and South Pacific Oceans. Not only is that the natural domain of these fish, but they also make a healthy part of the reef ecosystem in the region.

However, about three decades ago, these beautiful yet ferocious sea creatures started showing up off the Florida Coast. Ever since then, they have quickly multiplied. 

The reason behind this rapid increase in population is their predatory nature. While lionfish will feast on almost anything they can, their preferred meals are small reef fish, such as grouper and baby sniper. 

Unfortunately, due to the relatively new invasion of the lionfish, these small reef fish don’t recognize them as predators. As a result, this makes them an easy target. 

To make things even worse, there are no known sea creatures that prey on lionfish. Even large animals like sharks wouldn’t hunt these fish. 

In addition to all of this, lionfish reproduce around the year. A healthy and mature female can release up to million eggs every year, allowing them to grow in population quickly. 

All of these factors contribute to making it extremely easy for the invaders to spread unchecked while simultaneously destroying the natural reef ecosystem and local fisheries. 

Stephanie Green, a marine scientist at Stanford’s Center for Ocean Solutions, has revealed that the prey fish biomass has fallen by 65 to 95% in the Bahamas since lionfish invaded the region. 

Being prolific breeders, lionfish can range from shallow mangroves to over 1,000 feet deep non-reef habitats. Therefore, it is very challenging to eradicate them once they’ve established their territory. 

Nevertheless, extreme efforts are being taken to catch as many lionfish as possible using nets and spears. Divers and scientists are working hard to hunt these invaders and save the ecosystem. 

In fact, in recent years, various competitions have gained popularity, asking people to catch the largest, smallest, most beautiful, and even the largest number of lionfish. 

As Green noted, huge progress came when they realized that not only were lionfish edible but that they were also quite delicious. Therefore, the incentive wasn’t just the prize anymore but also a tasty meal. 

It has thus been concluded that increasing the general consumption of these predatory fish may contribute to saving the reef ecosystem of the region. 

However, there are certain things you need to know before you make lionfish a regular part of your diet. 

How Safe Are Lionfish for Consumption? 

Despite being delicious, there are a few reasons to be concerned about lionfish consumption – most notably their long, needle-sharp spines.

When you look at a lionfish, your first thought likely wouldn’t be to assume that these are some of the deadliest sea creatures. Instead, you might notice how gorgeous these fish are. 

They can be identified by their white and brown, red, or maroon stripes that cover the entire head and body. Above their eyes and below their mouth, they have fleshy tentacles. 

A series of fins rise from the sides, appearing similar to tournament flags. These fins that hide needle-sharp spines give lionfish an exotic appearance, making them a great sight for underwater photographers. 

However, these fins can potentially make lionfish fatal. The problem begins with the painful sting one can experience from these needle-sharp spines, and only gets worse from there on.

There are venomous glands in the spines, which can be lethal for any human or other creature that gets stung by it. Therefore, it requires some precision to filet the lionfish without getting your finger pricked.  

Since the venom can only cause harm by being injected, it doesn’t affect the meat of the fish. Additionally, cooking the lionfish deactivates any leftover venom, making them safe for consumption. 

Another reason people have been skeptical about consuming lionfish is due to their association with ciguatera. 

Ciguatera is a type of food poisoning that occurs due to the toxins in the meat of large reef fish. However, there is a lot of debate around whether lionfish actually causes ciguatera or not. 

Mark Hixon, a marine biologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, conducted a study in 2015 where he found that tests of raw meat came out negative for ciguatera.  

He also noted that there are no known cases of ciguatera being linked to lionfish up until then. Therefore, the risk of ciguatera isn’t big enough to prevent you from consuming lionfish. 

Reasons to Add Lionfish to Your Diet

Now that we’ve established that lionfish are safe for consumption, let’s talk about the potential benefits you might gain from including them in your diet. 

Here are a few reasons you should start looking for lionfish in your local fisheries. 

They Are Healthier Than Most Other Fish

Believe it or not, lionfish is actually healthier than snapper, tuna, wahoo, grouper, amberjack, billfish, dorado, and other commonly consumed fishes. 

This is because lionfish contain a higher amount of Omega-3 fatty acids than most other fishes. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for a healthy heart and are naturally found only in seafood. 

Additionally, lionfish are low in saturated fat and mercury, as well as other heavy metals. This makes them a healthy addition to your diet without any known side effects. 

Good for the Environment

Not only is eating lionfish good for your health, but it’s also beneficial for the health of the environment. As discussed earlier, non-native lionfish are destroying the reef ecosystem in various regions. 

Therefore, by including lionfish in your diet, you will be directly helping the environment. It will also give other native fish a chance to survive and save them from going extinct. 

Great Option for Sushi

If you go to the fancy sushi restaurant in your area, there is a very low chance that you’d find lionfish on the menu. But if you make sushi at home, this can be a great option to consider. 

Tuna may be your go-to option for sushi, but it contains a slightly higher level of mercury than is safe for consumption. In fact, pregnant women are discouraged from eating raw tuna due to mercury levels. 

Since lionfish is lower in mercury and higher in Omega-3 fatty acids, it is a much safer option for sushi and sashimi. All you need is a bit of wasabi and some soy sauce to bring out its natural flavor. 

However, if you want to get more creative, you can always try complex recipes that work for other raw fish. 

Support Local Fishermen

Fishermen risk their lives to catch fish to sell. However, farming and cultivating most other fishes require a lot of time and effort. 

On the other hand, lionfish are available in abundance, making them a great option for fishermen to hunt. If the demand for lionfish increases, it can increase the income of the local fisherman as well. 

Therefore, by consuming lionfish, you will be helping your local fisherman and also putting money into the local economy. It is a win-win situation.

Lionfish is Delicious

All the other benefits can go to vain if the food served on your table doesn’t taste that good. You may consider the benefits for a while, but how long would you realistically consume a meal you don’t enjoy?

Fortunately, lionfish are delicious. The first thought that may pop into your mind as you take a bite of fried lionfish would likely be how buttery it is. 

It has a firmer texture than halibut, whereas its flavor profile can be comparable to something between mahi mahi and thin grouper fillet. 

Either way, if you enjoy seafood, chances are that you would enjoy a well-made lionfish. 

Final Words

There are many reasons you should include lionfish in your diet. It is healthy, it is good for the environment, helps the local economy, and it is 100% safe for consumption. 

Just make sure that you learn how to handle the fish if you choose to hunt and cook it yourself, as you don’t want to get pricked by the deadly fins. 

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