Jamaican Locals Develop Taste for Fillets from Invasive Lionfish

Apr 15, 2014 08:57 AM EDT | Jordan Ecarma

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The exotically striped lionfish, which has been invading Atlantic and Caribbean waters and eating native fish and crustaceans, may have met its match since locals have caught on to the idea of using the fish as a food source.

Sporting a "mane" of venomous spines, the lionfish likely came from its indigenous Pacific waters to other parts of the world through the pet trade. Jamaica began a national campaign four years ago to reduce the lionfish population, which was gobbling young fish in the area, The Associated Press reported.

According to Jamaica's National Environment and Planning Agency, sightings of lionfish in shallow coastal waters have fallen as much as 66 percent.

A growing local hankering for lionfish fillets is a large factor in the decreased sightings, Jamaican marine ecologist Dayne Buddo told the AP.

While a few years ago, local fishermen "didn't want to mess" with the spiny creature, lionfish sales are now common at Jamaican markets.

"After learning how to handle them, the fishermen have definitely been going after them harder, especially spear fishermen. I believe persons here have caught on to the whole idea of consuming them," Buddo told the AP by phone.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has also done its part to encourage people to eat lionfish, spearheading a 2010 campaign with the slogan "eat sustainable, eat lionfish!"

The invasive fish is especially problematic to reefs and native ocean creatures that are already affected by pollution and overfishing, according to the AP. Even though fewer lionfish have been spotted in coastal waters with depths of 75 feet, they are still highly concentrated in deeper areas.

A national Jamaican project to target the lionfish recently completed its four-and-a-half year course. Scientists and locals hope the move toward marketing the lionfish as a food source can help keep the population at bay.

"I don't think we'll ever get rid of it, but I think for the most part we can control it, especially in marine protected areas where people are going after it very intensively and consistently," Buddo said.

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