Hunting Lionfish

The Delicate Process of Cleaning Lionfish

Lionfish are one of the most aggressive invasive species on the planet, I will add, other than humans. Just as humans Lionfish are habitat generalists and are extremely adaptive; they can live in a variety of environments, temperatures, depths, and salinity. They can eat, Boy! can they eat, frankly whatever: small fish, invertebrates, mollusks, and even smaller specimens of their own species. They are very territorial fish and incredibly skilled hunters. Similar to humans Lionfish have very few predators which are limited to Moray eels, larger species of Grouper, trained Sharks, and of course Homo sapiens. Any potential predators need to exercise caution with Lionfish and their venomous spines which release a neuromuscular toxin and can cause unpleasant reactions, but fortunately rarely cause death in adult humans. Just as humans, Lionfish practice a complex courting and mating behaviors but unlike humans they can produce 15,000 eggs (I feel so evolutionarily deficient as a biological female).
Native to the Indo-Pacific, these overly proficient and extensively efficient beings by luck and failure of our human character made it to both the South and Gulf Coasts of the United States and to the Caribbean Sea. Luck, because the damage of 1992 Hurricane Andrew destroyed an aquarium in Southern Florida, an event that released six Lionfish into the open water. Failure of human character, because these beautiful fish when in captivity require a lot of care and just as with pythons once husbandry gets to be too much the easiest thing is to release them into the wild (owners should have sushied or cooked their Lionfish pets).
National Park Service (NPS) credits introduction of the Lionfish into the Atlantic to as early as the 1980s
With stupendous adaptivity and 15,000 eggs a pop, Lionfish are now terrorizing reefs and like NAZI U-boats during WW2 are moving up the East Coast causing havoc.
A few days ago, a friend of mine extended to me an incredible opportunity, an invitation to accompany her on an independent Lionfish hunt in the Florida Keys. She has a boat; she has the weapons and she has the know-how. All I needed was my scuba gear and my killer instinct. Lionfish are such a problem for the local reef that FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) does not require a fishing license, nor is there a limit to the number of Lionfish that an individual can collect.
Of course, I was game for the adventure.
My friend introduced me to the tools of the trade, a short fiberglass Hawaiian sling pole spear with a trident at the tip, and a Lionfish Hotel underwater carrying bag made of heavy vinyl hugging a solid plastic neck with a one-way trap door. Since this was my very first Lionfish hunting trip, for additional safety I wore my heavy neoprene diving gloves. I read too much about the neuromuscular toxin venom and I wanted to be extra protected against extreme pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, breathing difficulties, convulsions, dizziness, redness on the affected area, headache, numbness, paresthesia (pins and needles), heartburn, diarrhea, and sweating. We discussed our plan of attack and agreed to exercise uber caution while coordinating our assault. Two of us against one Lionfish might not sound fair but it is one invasive species against another and we did not intend to play this one fair.
We headed out to the designated hunting grounds and jumped into the warm turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. It was a calm day and our planned maximum depth was no more than fifty feet. Since we were in the open ocean, we took all our cautionary gear including an active GPS tracker, a safety sausage and of course an underwater compass. My friend was in charge of underwater orienteering while I was a Lionfish spotter. We swam out and I kept one eye on my friend and with the other I was peeking into numerous nooks and crannies between the coral mounts. Shortly into the dive, I came upon three Lionfish resting their beautiful vivid pectoral fins and venomous spiky fin rays under a coral ledge. I took my trident spear and banged it on my aluminum tank to get my partner’s attention. She looked and me and I gestured, two fingers to my eyes indicating “look” and then pointed one in the direction on the Lionfish and displayed three fingers to indicated three fish. I then pointed at her indicating “you” and showed one finger and pointed towards Lionfish gesturing, “go first.” I pointed back at myself, showed two fingers and pointed back to the location indicating, “I go second.” She shook her head in an affirmative and gave me an OK sign; we had our strategy and an agreed tactics.
With respect due to our opponents and agreed upon caution, my friend approached the reef mount looked around and assessed the situation. She then pulled the heavy rubber band of the Hawaiian sling up on her forearm and shot, stubbing the Lionfish with two of the three sharp prongs, score! I approached from a 90-degree angle and replicated her action, pulling the sling and releasing with force and then for a good measure giving it an extra push to assure a good kill. My partner removed her spear and positioned the Lionfish Hotel so that I could deposit our catch. This was a visually beautiful and a sizeable specimen. I was excited, we did it! Once the first fish was deposited safely, we looked around for the other two. One of which was no longer visible; we certainly caused a little dust and a sandy commotion so our visibility was reduced. I tried my luck at the remining smaller Lionfish but I couldn’t keep my cool; I was too excited and I missed. The last Lionfish skirted away and hid out of our site.
That is OK, I though, we got one so the hunt is a success. My partner pulled out her compass, assessed our location and gestured in the direction she wanted us to swim. I was exhilarated, I checked my air gauge and I was at 2000 PSI, plenty of gas to continue our hunt. I checked with my partner and she confirmed a similar PSI (actually a little more but who is counting?). I now felt like an underwater predator and I believe my partner had the same feeling. While she kept us on the correct path in reference to cardinal direction, I kept looking between coral rocks. And there they were, two more Lionfish happily resting in a little cranny. Once again, I banged on my aluminum tank and caught my partner’s eye. This time she instructed me to shoot first and gestured that she will position herself on the other side of the cavern to assure that no Lionfish escapes. Now, we were both predators and this was an instrumented ambush by two human females who can produce one and no more than three or so eggs per each lunar cycle against a lionfish female that can produce 15,000 (yes, I do have an issue with this part of the evolutional accident).  I jabbed the Lionfish and my partner finished her off and we carefully deposited her into the Hotel. We looked for the second Lionfish but it was no longer there.
With all the excitement, I was breathing hard and the adrenaline was running through my veins; I looked at my partner and we smiled. We were happy successful and victorious predators. I checked my gauges and reported that the gas is now at 1200 PSI, she OKed the information and started leading us back in the direction of the boat. On the way back, I did not spot anymore Lionfish. We returned to the line where our boat was tied-off to a mooring bouyon then ascended to 15 feet and did our 3-minute safety stop. According to my dive computer, the entire adventure was about 62 minutes long. Back on the boat, I was full of excitement and while this was not the first rodeo for my friend, my excitement had to be infectious. Giving each other high fives and recalling the successful hunt we were going home; I kept expressing my feelings of transformation into an underwater Predator and I think my friend also accepted that title. Back on the dock, with extremely caution, my friend and her husband cleaned the fish. First, they cut the poisonous spikes and fins and then they fillet the two fish preparing them for a delicious evening meal.
What an experience! I definitely caught an underwater predator bug. An adventure like this I will want to repeat as often as life allows and as often as opportunities present themselves. Big Thanks to my friend to exposing me to a new extremely rewarding experience!

{Note: The first version of this article and its source might have under-estimated the reproductive capability of the Lionfish, here is another link specifying 50,000 eggs every three days:,predators%20in%20their%20invasive%20range }

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15 thoughts on “Hunting Lionfish

  1. Mary Kn

    So enjoyed reading this Irena! What a great experience and nice to do something for conservation too.

  2. Asher

    One thing you might do with your URLs is attach them to meaningful words. This is a trick they taught us in technical writing to keep the reading easier. So, instead of doing “you can read more about lionfish eggs at” you could say “lionfish can produce up to 15,000 eggs” and that text itself is the hyperlink to the source. WordPress should let you do this in the editor, but in html, you just add an href=”” tag in the element.

    1. Irena Post author

      This time after cleaning the fish, I left the filets to my diving buddy and her husband. The report came back that sashimi was delicious and the dish with mango/tomato chutney was to die for. So I do not have the first hand response but many people say, way good!

  3. Michael Grant

    We shot 27 of them off of Islamorada yesterday. Cleaned them and chowed down to some very savory tasting lionfish

    1. Irena Post author

      Nice! I am hoping to get more skilled at the craft and become a high capacity hunter 🙂 Your comment will help answer another question about eating Lionfish. One person asked if we could relate taste similarities to any other common fish. What do you think?

    1. Irena Post author

      Ted, my dearest Palmeranian, I always enjoy spending time in the water with you. Next time as opposed to chasing sticks, we will chaise Lionfish and of course you do have that killer instinct!

  4. Kim Portner

    Wow! It was exciting for me reading about your experience…I can imagine how incredible the experience felt! Way to go!!!! It is such an inspiration to see you living life!!!!

    1. Irena Post author

      Currently, I find myself to be an experience collector, still trying to figure out how I want to spend the next 50 years. Traveling, experiencing and then writing about it thus far brings me joy. I just need to figure out how to monetize this joy 🙂


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