“If you can’t beat’em, eat’em!”
This is the rallying cry for Libby Eaton, Debby Boyce, and many other people in Carteret County who are tackling a beautiful, delicious, and disturbing invader of North Carolina waters: the lionfish.
Libby Eaton is co-owner of Bistro by the Sea in Morehead City. Debby Boyce is owner of Discovery Diving in Beaufort. Together, with the help of the Eastern Carolina Artificial Reef Association, they sponsor an annual Lionfish Spearfishing Tournament to help get lionfish out of our waters and onto your plate. The goal? To slow down the demise of fish such as grouper and snapper, which the lionfish is rapidly threatening.
Picture a video game akin to the classic Pac-Man. Currently, the invasive lionfish is like Pac-Man on steroids, gobbling up native fish and invertebrates from over 70 species along the Atlantic seaboard and in the Caribbean. Libby and Debby, along with the ECARA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, want to switch the game around, so that commercial fishermen take the role of Pac-Man, and the lionfish become the “ghosts” that get gobbled up.
How did they get into this project? In 2010, Libby heard about the lionfish problem through Carteret Catch, a partnership of local fishing industry folks, restaurant owners, researchers and concerned citizens who promote Carteret County commercial fishing through public marketing and education.
“I started asking food brokers about lionfish,” Libby said, “but was told that they live at least 100 feet deep around here, and there was no way to get them easily.”
Libby and her husband, chef Tim Coyne of the Bistro, went to Belize in 2012 and asked to go down with divers to see lionfish.
“But Belize had eradicated lionfish there, because they lived in shallow water and could be caught. They had fishing tournaments and restaurant tastings to promote catching them.”
“We came back to Morehead City, and started finding out more about lionfish,” she continued. “They consume six to seven fish per day, including young groupers and snappers. They are lazy, hovering in reefs and grabbing their prey. With thousands of lionfish, the other fish are being depleted. There are now restrictions on catching grouper, they’ve become so diminished in number.”
Since the 1980s, the Indo-Pacific native lionfish has been showing up in Florida waters and spreading both north and south with frightening speed. There are a variety of theories as to how they entered U.S. waters, including climate change, although one of the most popular ideas is that they were introduced by Florida aquarium owners releasing them into the ocean.
Lionfish are incredibly invasive species outside of the Indo-Pacific region, and have no natural predators here. They reproduce rapidly – a single female lionfish can spawn over two million eggs per year. And they eat voraciously – an adult can consume up to 30 times its own stomach volume. A dense population of lionfish can reduce juvenile populations of other species on a reef by nearly 90% in five weeks.
In 2013 Discovery Diving and Bistro by the Sea helped sponsor the region’s first lionfish tournament, supported with a tourism grant to promote attendance by people living outside as well as inside the county. Afterward, an invited group of seafood fanciers helped taste test the lionfish caught to determine if a market could be created for this underwater predator.
Morehead City resident, Barry Nash, with NC Sea Grant, was one of the tasters. “Lionfish is desirable – it is white fish with a mild flavor, and you can season it any way you like. If we can commercially get it, there’s a market for it. In North Carolina’s Triangle area, there are restaurants that are interested in lionfish. Snapper and grouper are getting depleted, so they are looking for new fish.”
Libby echoes this idea. “Since the lionfish tasting here at the Bistro, people have been calling us up, asking when we will have it on the menu. Some people think it tastes like sea bass. I got a dealer’s license, but we just can’t get the product.”
The challenge now is finding a viable way to catch lionfish commercially.
“They are smart,” Libby points out. “They don’t go for line and hook.”
Debby Boyce and Janelle Fleming at Discovery Diving applied to NOAA for a grant to work on solving the problem by finding easier, less expensive ways of procuring lionfish for restaurants. Chartering a boat and hiring divers to go down 100 feet costs money, and you get a low yield on each fish because they are small. According to some estimates, you would have to pay $30 to $50 per pound for lionfish to cover the expenses of harvesting it.
Now there are plans for deploying lionfish attracting devices (LAD’s) constructed by NOAA here and also in the Caribbean. Built in two different shapes, a shorter dome and a taller “Christmas tree,” the LAD’s will be taken by boat beyond the reef to about 100 feet of water, and congregated on a sandy bottom to attract lionfish.
Debby explained, “Once a month, we will check the LAD’s, count fish, and spear those that are hanging around. If we can lure them to one location with these devices, then we can start trapping them for commercial fishers.”
Spearing the fish involves using pole spears, which work like a slingshot.
“You need a fast method to get enough fish to make it worthwhile,” says Boyce. “Divers only have about 10 minutes to stay down, in the depths we’re talking about.”
NOAA will be making some modifications to their trap design, and are working on how to get lionfish into the traps, as well as how to attract just lionfish.
Why are Libby and Debby willing to put so much effort into this project? After all, it’s a lot more work than a video game, and certainly less predictable.
Libby said, “I grew up in the farms of Indiana. Fishermen are a lot like farmers – they work hard, get no holidays, have to work under state and federal regulations. Here at Bistro by the Sea, we have staked our reputation on local seafood, which is harder and harder to come by. We have to protect our food sources.
“The most important thing for independent restaurant chefs is that, they need consistent products, which can be traced to their origin. We educate the public.”
On the menu at the Bistro, seafood items which are caught locally are marked with the logo of Carteret Catch. Grouper, flounder, triggerfish and tuna were all marked on the menu Libby shared.
As for Debby Boyce: “Well, this is my store – it’s about diving, and it’s important. Lionfish are ruining the tropical fish in this area, which divers seek to see. We can’t eliminate them entirely, but we can lessen their numbers, and hopefully use them for commercial purposes, for food.”
This is way more important than any video game. Barry Nash puts it this way: “Carteret County has the highest number of licensed fishermen in North Carolina. We want seafood to be available for future generations.”
The 3rd Annual Lionfish Spearfishing Tournament will take place June 4-10. It begins with an educational forum at Discovery Diving in Beaufort, on Friday, May 29, where participants will learn about lionfish and how to spear them, as well as how to avoid being stung by the fish’s beautiful but venomous spines. For more information, or to sign up for the tournament, contact Discovery Diving at 252-728-2265, or www.DiscoveryDiving.com.