How to hunt and kill the invasive lionfish
In 2005 reports were just beginning to come out about lionfish sightings off the east coast of Florida. Within 5 years, they were literally covering the reefs. The lionfish has now established itself from the Mid-Atlantic down through the entire Caribbean to Central America, along the entire Gulf Coast to Texas and Mexico, and east to Bermuda. Unlike the Indo-Pacific version of the lionfish in its native waters, the invasive Atlantic lionfish is proliferating at an alarming rate. In the Atlantic, breeding is year round rather than seasonal. The Atlantic lionfish are growing larger and because they have no known predators they are stacking up like cord wood on the reefs and devastating the native juvenile reef fish population. We will probably never eliminate the lionfish from the Atlantic, but it’s obvious that divers are making a difference in areas where the lionfish is being hunted. If we can continue to clean the shallow reefs where divers frequent and juvenile fish populations swim, then we have a fighting chance to preserve our native species. Man has proven time and again that we are capable of over harvesting fish for food, lets turn our attention now on doing it to the invasive species.
Because the Atlantic lionfish has no predator, they are surprisingly easy (and fun!) to hunt. The lionfish is a stalking hunter, they usually sit motionless looking like a soft coral with their long spines gently flowing in the current and move very slowly towards their prey. They have large mouths which are capable of opening wide enough to swallow a fish almost as large as themselves. Lionfish have been found with as many as 20 small juvenile fish in their bellies! The lionfish also likes to sit on or near the bottom. They like structure, and will often be under a ledge, on a rock, or sitting next to a piece of structure. Having never feared for its life from a predator, the lionfish will sit still and let divers approach it. Once it feels the sting of a stainless steel prong however, the game is on and the lionfish will seek a safe hole to hide in.
The lionfish’s lack of fear is what allows the diver to get so close with a polespear for a clean shot. There are many devices on the market for hunting lionfish, but we feel a polespear is the best tool because it can be shot and handled with one hand, allowing the fish to be bagged with the other hand while handling the lionfish on the end of the pole spear. The Foldspear is the best choice for lionfish hunting because divers can keep the Foldspear in its pouch on the leg and pull it out when needed, keeping the hands free for other gear and entries/exits. Diving in areas that are regularly hunted, a diver may see only one or two lionfish on a dive, so why carry your lionfish device in your hand the whole time?
Once the lionfish is spotted, load the band on your Foldspear and approach the lionfish as close as possible with the tip of the spear. The lionfish will usually allow you to put your tip as close as 3-4 inches from its head. Then release the band. Always aim for the head, it’s large because the lionfish has a huge mouth, and it’s much tougher than the delicate white meat and will hold on the spear better.
Just like when you are shooting anything else, please be aware of what is under and behind the lionfish so that you don’t damage the reef or any corals. They are often over sand around a coral head, and when possible it’s best to shoot with a downward angle to pin the lionfish to the bottom and ensure good penetration with the spear tip.
The next step is to bag the lionfish. With our lionfish holding bag, it is easy to slip the lionfish head first into the bag and then pull the Foldspear back out, shaking the lionfish into the bag. The bag is very tough and resistant to the spines, but always use care when handling any bag of lionfish, as the spines are stiff and may punch through any material. There is a flap on the lionfish holding bag which works like a typical lobster bag and is essentially a one way valve. The lionfish goes in, but can’t swim back out. Back on the surface the bag is easily removed from the handle/flap section and the lionfish can be dumped out for cleaning. Please refer to our page How to Clean and Fillet a Lionfish for cleaning instructions.
Remember, every lionfish female can release up to 2 million eggs each year! By helping to remove the invasive lionfish from the reef you are saving our grouper, snapper, and other native species for future generations.
Photos courtesy of Carole Ott