Shawn Harper has made hundreds of dives and submerged himself in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Caribbean, the Arctic and Antarctic seas, the waters off Alaska, Hawaii, Fiji, Samoa, Madagascar and New Zealand. He’s seen whales, sharks, rays, turtles, octopus and all manner of sea creatures. But even he was surprised on his first shipwreck dive southeast of Cape Hatteras, a sight that became a cause for him.
While diving near two wrecks, the Proteus and the Tarpon, he saw dozens of lionfish, a voracious, invasive species capable of disrupting underwater eco-systems and all but wiping out native fish populations.
“If you think about a wreck as a little island,” Harper says, “a small community of fish, they can have a large impact on that little area, especially when you have hundreds of them on a wreck.”
Harper, the diving safety instructor at the North Carolina Aquarium in Manteo, had dealt with lionfish while working as a consultant in Belize in 2013 and 2014. The mostly warm-water fish had overtaken a reef off of the coast, and he and his colleagues charted and compiled data on them and removed as many as possible. He saw far more lionfish around the Proteus and Tarpon on that first dive than he saw in Belize.
“It blew me away,” he says. “That’s when I says, we really should be looking at that.”
Lionfish are stars of aquariums, but scourges in open water. They have brightly-colored bands — they’re sometimes called zebrafish or firefish — with prominent pectoral fins and protruding venomous spines. The venom is quite painful for humans and can cause nausea, vomiting and fever.
Lionfish have no known predator and consume over 100 species of fish, according to the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science.
They grow up to 20 inches and range from less than a half-pound to nearly three pounds. Their stomachs can expand up to 30 times their normal volume, and they can eat fish half their size.
One thousand lionfish can consume 5 million prey fish in a year. Females lay 12- to 15,000 eggs at a time in a gelatinous mass that’s carried by ocean currents, so a lionfish off the Florida coast can spawn an entire colony that ends up in North Carolina waters.
Lionfish are native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, but it’s believed that they were introduced to the Atlantic through the aquarium trade in south Florida in the 1980s. Since then, they have spread to South American waters, the Caribbean and into the mid-Atlantic. They have been caught as far north as New York and Rhode Island.
Lionfish affect both ecology and habitats, says Sara Mirabilio, a fisheries expert with the North Carolina Sea Grant. They deplete native fish populations, which disrupts the food chain, as well as affecting commercial and recreational fishing. They can take over sites such as reefs and shipwrecks, which often provide shelter and protection for native fish.
“They’re almost impossible to eradicate completely,” Mirabilio says. “We have to look at ways to try to control the population.”
Harper drew up a proposal for a series of dives last summer and fall that would attempt to gauge the lionfish population at several wreck sites, and to remove as many as possible. But poor weather and diver availability forced them to adjust the schedule and limit the wrecks they visited.
In mid-August, six divers using poles and spearfishing equipment removed 58 lionfish from the Tarpon wreck area. In early-September, two divers collected 29 fish at the same site. In November, four divers removed 99 fish at the wreck. Harper says they saw more lionfish at the site in November than on any previous visit, but was unsure if it was due to quick repopulation within the site, or fish migrating to the warmer, Gulf Stream waters in which the Tarpon sits.
“Even removing one lionfish is helpful, but to really make a substantial impact, you would have to do some type of other effort in removing the fish; some type of commercial fishery effort, or putting out traps,” Harper says.
Indeed, Harper wants to reach out to the fishing community and to schools. Typically, lionfish aren’t caught by hook and line. The fact that they congregate around reefs and wrecks make trawling and netting difficult. He wonders if an effective trap can be designed that attracts lionfish, but not by-catch.
Harper and others also want to raise awareness among consumers and the restaurant community that lionfish can be a viable, tasty food source. Though its spines are venomous, there is no poison in the meat.
“It really is a mild, adaptable fish,” says Andy Montero, owner and head chef of Montero’s in Elizabeth City. Montero was invited to the aquarium in November to prepare lionfish as part of the Roanoke Island facility’s Seafood Series.
Montero had never eaten or cooked lionfish, so he researched it thoroughly and prepared it several ways. He says that in ceviche, it presented similarly to shrimp or lobster. He also pan-seared and broiled it, and says the meat was more flaky and comparable to grouper or snapper. He says that it could be batter-dipped and fried, as well.
“I would love to bring it in (to my restaurant),” Montero says. “It’s a tasty fish that’s easy to prepare.”
Lionfish aren’t likely to be on local menus regularly any time soon, since they aren’t caught in abundance.
Harper and others hope to change that, for the health of the ocean and those who depend on it.