Invasive Lionfish: “To Beat ‘Em, Just Eat ‘Em!”

Written by on April 23, 2013 in Fish, Interviews, Other News

Lionfish. Photo credit: Michael Aston via photopin cc

Lionfish (Pterois miles and P. volitans) are native to the Indo-Pacific but in less than a decade they have flooded the waters along the Southeastern U.S. and Caribbean. This highly invasive species is becoming one of the biggest threats to our oceans as it out-competes commercially important fish species and alters whole reef communities. For more background on lionfish, check out this article.

So, what can we do about this lionfish problem? We can eat them.

Although it’s not as simple as it sounds — lionfish can be challenging to catch and most people have never tried it or even seen it in a restaurant before. But, one company aims to change all that.

Traditional Fisheries (TF) is the world’s only commercial supplier of lionfish. Their goal is simple: to reduce the lionfish population and protect coral reefs while supporting small fishing communities.

David Johnson with the president and secretary of the Loma cooperative in Loma Atravesada, Dominican Republic.

David Johnson with the president and secretary of the Loma cooperative in Loma Atravesada, Dominican Republic, where the closest electricity is 11 miles away. They have participated in the lionfish harvest. Photo courtesy of David Johnson.

By partnering with local fishing cooperatives in the Caribbean, TF has found a way to do just that. They currently work with four fishing cooperatives: one in Puerto Morelos, Mexico and three in the Dominican Republic. TF’s commitment to fair pay has greatly benefited the economies of these small fishing villages while their dedication to the environment motivates them to remove as many lionfish from the sea as possible.

President and Founder of Traditional Fisheries, David Johnson and Vice President Gary Groomes recently made an appearance on ABC’s Shark Tank to look for an investor to help TF continue to grow. Unfortunately, no deal was made but they did introduce ‘The Sharks‘ (and millions of viewers) to a delicious new seafood and a dangerous environmental threat. Thanks to David and Gary, more people now know that “there are more lionfish in the sea today than there were yesterday” and that we have the power to help change that.

MST recently had the opportunity to learn more about TF from David Johnson.

Q: What inspired you to start Traditional Fisheries?

A: An article in The Economist titled “Eat for the Ecosystem“. My wife Soraida, is from a small fishing village on the Mexican Caribbean near Belize where I met her, and lived during the 1990’s. My children, Nelson and Lars were born there. My brothers in law are all spear fishermen. When I read that the Lionfish could only be captured by spear, I knew just who could provide me with Lionfish, which had recently arrived in the Mexican Caribbean. It gave me my chance to do something good for the planet and for disadvantaged fishing communities. It is a “do well, by doing good” opportunity

Q: How are lionfish for TF caught?

A: They are individually speared at depths up to 170 ft.

Q: Are there ways to make the process faster and more efficient?

A: We at Traditional Fisheries are working on a Lionfish specific trap which could be a game changer. I joke that we will apply for a Nobel Prize once we are successful, but in reality it is no joke.

Q: Are the spikes on lionfish dangerous to the fishermen?

A: Alive, the venomous (not poisonous) spines of the Lionfish give a very painful sting. Once the fish is dead the potency of the venom dissipates until it eventually disappears. Usually within 24 hours.

Q: What about to the chefs and eventually the consumer?

A: Chefs should be very cautious with fresh fish. Those experienced in fish handling should not have a problem. Our suppliers fillet the fish fresh with the spines on treating it like any other fish with spines. Regarding the consumer the only danger I am aware of is the intoxicating soup the Cuban’s reputedly make from the venomous spines, otherwise the consumer will find a delicious, nutritious meal, high in Omega 3.

Q: You work with fishing cooperatives in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Why did you choose these places?

A: Mexico is my second home, my children were born there, my in-laws live there and I have many close friends from Cancun all the way to, and into Belize. The Dominican Republic was attractive due to the number of artisanal fishers, the high rate of poverty, and the possibility of sourcing fish from neighboring Haiti where with proper logistical support; we could really make a difference.

Q: As the lionfish population continues to grow, do you plan on working in new areas?

A: We have contacts everywhere from Puerto Rico to Port a Prince, from Costa Rica to Cuba, people in nearly all areas affected by this plague. Places where we can make a difference both in the water and on land. Our lack of funds to pursue these sources is all that prevents us from being there. Gary and I both have day jobs to keep our families fed. We are always looking for people who would like to help us take this to the next level.

Q: What is the timeline like for Traditional Fisheries? When will I start seeing lionfish at every seafood restaurant?

A: We are nearing our next step in expansion of our speared fish supply. Our progress with the trap continues and as mentioned before is a game changer. Supply will always dictate the coverage of our presence.

Q: Will it ever make it to grocery stores for the everyday consumer?

A: Costs will have to drop for that to happen and the more we ship the faster pricing can come down. With new capture methods we can not only supply human consumption, but also aquaculture, and other avenues for all sized fish. Demand for seafood is constantly rising, in particular in the USA where both Latin and Asian populations are growing. These groups are accustomed to eating fish anywhere from 2 to 20 times a week. This is a very healthy alternative to the burger and fries mentality that exists in the US. If the price is right, people will purchase it.

Q: Which is a bigger challenge for the company – catching the lionfish or encouraging people to eat them?

A: It is a combination of the two. Fish, being a perishable substance is not an easy thing to supply. You must constantly balance supply with demand. Growing the two together is a challenge, one that we are prepared to take on.

Q: On Shark Tank, “Mr. Wonderful” said he thought it would take too long to “convince people” to eat lionfish. Do think that people really need convincing?

A: My Mexican friends are already convinced. When I arrived to purchase Lionfish they told me I was crazy and that you would die just getting near the fish. They now take it home to feed their families. The Mexican men tell me that it has “mucha vitamina” (lots of vitamins) and that their wives are ALWAYS happy to cook it.

Very high in Omega 3, a delicate light fillet, a healthy and low calorie-guilt free meal, aiding indigenous fishers and their communities, helping to conserve reef systems. You tell me if there is a better seafood to eat. Many fishes are endangered and overfished. This fish is the one and only that we want to take as many as we can. Everyone wins but the Lionfish.

Q: What’s your favorite way to eat lionfish?

A: In the Tempura batter of, Chef Jeff Jimenez that we served to the “Sharks”. Ceviche is #2.

President and Founder of Traditional Fisheries David Johnson holding a lionfish.

President and Founder of Traditional Fisheries David Johnson holding a lionfish. Photo courtesy of David Johnson.

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Copyright © 2013 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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  1. Lovin'Marine says:

    I would love to try some Lionfish!!!

  2. Emily says:

    Me too! Can’t wait to see it in restaurants everywhere.

  3. Brian says:

    Hey David. Great job. You Guys wanna try some of David’s lions or some local South Carolina caught Lionfish. Come see us at Fleet Landing. We buy from David in the off season when bottom fishing is closed but when it’s open we get plenty locally
    As far as convincing people David, I agree for us it took a little while but now it has caught on and we will get phone calls,emails asking when or if we have it. My diners sure have taken a liking to and no we can’t get enough.

  4. Emily says:

    Brian — Love that Fleet Landing serves Lionfish! Does the restaurant have other sustainable seafood options? If it does, I would love to add it to MST’s list of ocean-friendly restaurants!