Bahamian reefs, which have suffered for years from over-fishing, pollution and plastic waste, now have a new environmental menace to contend with.
Fortunately, this one is delicious.
Lionfish, the gaudy, spiny critters that were once only aquarium novelties outside their home turf in Asia, have followed the typical script for invasive species. Some years ago, a hurricane smashed an aquarium in Florida and released six of the creatures into the wild. Their offspring spread throughout the Bahamas, devouring indigenous reef-fish, pushing several already endangered fish populations even closer to extinction.
Fortunately, the cruising sailor and the lionfish seem have a perfect predator-prey relationship. Most cruisers are slow-moving underwater, and so too is the lionfish. Some cruisers are fairly poor shots with a pole spear. The docile lionfish is an easy target and is therefore our perfect prey. Of course, many environmentally friendly cruisers think hunting animals is an unfair sport. But the lionfish, with its appetite for baby reef fish and its ability to poke the spear hunter back, is hardly innocent.
While the venom in its spines is a toxin, the lionfish itself is not toxic. Having eaten dozens, I can vouch for the fact that none of the fish I have consumed were toxic and all were ciguatera-free.
Of course, while hunting lionfish one needs to beware of their spines. The first lionfish I speared promptly jabbed a spine into the back of my thumb. It hurt, but I did not suffer for more than a few minutes.
Fortunately, lionfish don’t seem to understand that their spines are their best defense and they will never attack you. Defending yourself against an accidental poking is simple; inexpensive gardening gloves appear to be impervious to the spines. Watch speared fish closely so they don’t wiggle down the shaft toward you. When swimming back to the boat with your kill, hold your spear away from your body and out of the water if possible. Have someone onboard wearing gloves ready to take your spear and remove your prize.
When cleaning the fish, you can avoid getting poked by wearing gloves and being careful. If you brush the pectoral fin from head to tail, the pointy bits can be avoided and the fin removed with a sharp filleting knife. The head also has some frilly parts that can sting you. Some people will remove the dorsal fin spines with kitchen shears before scaling and filleting their fish, but I find these to be a non-issue once the fish is lying flat on a filleting table. Once scaled, filleted, dipped in egg and rolled in bread crumbs, this environmental scourge appears much less menacing than it does below water— and is much tastier.