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Invaders in paradise

By Rachel Bowman

In a perfect world, every individual would accomplish three things: Save the planet, make people happy, and manage to enjoy themselves while doing this. Most of us are lucky if we can achieve these goals in a lifetime. Here, in the middle of the Florida Keys, is an individual who is accomplishing this on a daily basis.

Left to Right: John Mirabella, Chase Grimes, Julie Botteri and Rachel Bowman pose with their bountiful catch of lionfish at the second annual Marathon Lionfish Derby.

John Mirabella arrived in the Florida Keys roughly around the same time that Lionfish, a species native to Pacific waters, began establishing itself as the biggest threat to our reef. Mirabella, a Navy-trained scuba diver, gave up operating nuclear reactors on submarines to move to Marathon with his wife, Arlene, where they purchased Castaway Waterfront Restaurant & Sushi Bar, the oldest seafood restaurant in the Middle Keys. Having speared fish in every ocean in the world, it was only natural that John provide his customers with fish he himself shot, including wahoo, cobia, grouper, snapper, African Pompano, and mahi mahi. Three years ago, lionfish, which cannot be netted or caught with a hook, made an appearance on his menu.

Understanding the lionfish problem is a simple matter of numbers. Lionfish, the biggest being around 18 inches, will eat any fish or crustacean that is 2 inches smaller than they are. They will eat 20 fish in 30 minutes. They reproduce starting in the first year of their life, and a female will release eggs every 3 days, a total of 2 million eggs per year, which are carried up the coast by the Gulf Stream current. These voracious eaters, who have a 15-year lifespan, have been found to have cholesterol issues off of the coast of North Carolina. Simply put, they are over-eaters. Lionfish are now found as far north as New York, as far east as Venezuela, and have populated every area of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.

The REALLY scary part… Lionfish have zero predators in these waters. Not only do Atlantic and Caribbean fish not eat lionfish, but they don’t even recognize them as predators. The life of a lionfish is an easy one, they just sit on a wreck or reef and open their mouth.

The lionfish has a red and white striped body covered in 18 spines, at the base of which is a venom gland, making it a beautiful but formidable opponent. While they are not aggressive to humans, a slight brush up against one will result in a painful sting and immediate swelling. Like a bee sting, if you aren’t allergic, it’s not fatal, but the amount of venom can make the pain range from minor discomfort to something close to temporary agony. The venom is protein based, meaning the only relief is to apply heat immediately.

The GOOD news… Lionfish are delicious! Their lack of fear of humans make them easy prey, a three-pronged pole spear is all it takes to end a lionfish’s life. John Mirabella and his friends are bringing fresh lionfish to The Castaway daily, and it’s so tasty that National Geographic featured one of John’s lionfish recipes on their website. Once the spines are cut off, lionfish can be enjoyed just like any other white, mild, flaky fish, even sashimi-style.

With humans being the only deterrent to a lionfish takeover, encouraging commercial markets is a crucial step. Order lionfish if you see it on a menu, and encourage divers and snorkelers to spear any fish they see. The invasion has established a foothold, but every lionfish killed gives a second chance to all of the fish it would have eaten.

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