Lionfish Threaten Coral Reefs Near Fla.

The coral reefs off Florida have become infested with another invasive species: lionfish. Originally from the Pacific Ocean and popular as aquarium fish, lionfish are colorful and sport venomous spiky tentacles. They're also voracious predators — posing a threat to the small fish that thrive around coral reefs. To control this marine pest, conservation groups are encouraging fishermen to catch lionfish and eat them. Groups are holding competitions — including a recent one in Key Largo — where hundreds of fish are being culled and eaten.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: The crystal blue waters and coral reefs of the Caribbean attract visitors from around the world. One troublesome visitor has become well-established on those reefs, and its population is exploding. It's the lionfish, a small but voracious predator. So people in Florida are getting creative in trying to control this invasive species. As NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami, if you can't beat them, eat them.

GREG ALLEN: At the Coconuts Restaurant in Key Largo, Aldo Moradaya(ph) is preparing a new local delicacy: fillet of lionfish.

ALDO MORADAYA: I'm putting flour. Next, you put it in the fryer for like two minutes.

ALLEN: What fish doesn't taste good breaded and deep-fried? But Lad Akins says there are many other ways to cook lionfish. Akins is with the Reef Environmental Educational Foundation based in the Florida Keys. He's on a mission to let people know throughout the Caribbean that this is one tasty fish.

LAD AKINS: Lionfish is very light, mild, delicately flavored fish. It's not heavy. It's light and flaky. So you can season it many different ways. Some people have compared it to halibut. Everyone has their different take on it, but it's certainly very good eating.

ALLEN: Akins has co-authored a lionfish cookbook with 45 recipes and one goal in mind: to encourage divers and fishermen to catch and eat a fish that's become a problem. Lionfish aren't native to the Caribbean. They were first imported from their native waters in the Pacific and Indian oceans for saltwater aquariums. They've been spotted in Florida waters since at least 1985. But in recent years, the population has begun to explode. Akins says as newcomers often do in Florida, lionfish have prospered.

AKINS: Lionfish are very well adaptive as a top predator. They're well-defended with venomous spines. They're gluttonous feeder. They have high reproductive output. And other issues surrounding most invasive species like lack of parasites, et cetera, have enabled them to gain a great foothold here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I think we'll be good to work (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What team are you guys with?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Ahab.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ahab?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Like Captain Ahab?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Yup.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Great. OK. All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALLEN: In Key Largo, REEF and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary teamed up recently to hold a lionfish derby. Nineteen teams competed to see who would bring in the largest, the smallest and the most lionfish. The top prize of $1,000 went to a team that brought in 289 fish caught with spears and hand nets.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: 373, nice fish.

ALLEN: What's that in inches?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I don't know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALLEN: That's 14 and two-thirds inches. As it turns out, the largest fish of the day. Standing nearby with apron, glove and a sharp filleting knife at the ready is John Halas, a manager with the Keys Marine Sanctuary. How do you fillet a lionfish here?

JOHN HALAS: Well, carefully.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HALAS: That'd be a good way to start with. I've got a puncture-proof glove that I'm using.

ALLEN: Fish are filleted, breaded and fried. Others go to a dissection table where marine researchers are gathering data on the growing lionfish population. Diver Kara Wall was pretty happy. Her scuba team took second place in the derby with 95 lionfish. You have to watch out for their venomous spines. Getting stuck is about like a bad bee sting. But otherwise, she says, catching lionfish is easy.

KARA WALL: They're pretty stupid. They think that if they fluff out real big, they'll be like, I'm poisonous, go away. And so they don't really try and get away until it's a little bit too late.

ALLEN: Lionfish derbies are catching on in the Keys and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Marine scientists say because the invasive species is now firmly established, it's probably not possible to remove it completely. But by encouraging people to catch and eat them, they hope to control the lionfish population and protect the most vulnerable coral reef areas. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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