The invasive Lionfish are like vacuums. They’re going to consume every animal in front of them they can fit into their mouths; and, consumers are starting to consume them! Lionfish are becoming popular on menus in the Keys as chefs discover the versatility of the white, flakey fish.
But, as the Key West Weekly tells you, you don’t have to kill and cook; you can savor the beauty all year round.
“I started thinking about this last night, and called my fish collector and said, ‘I need some fish!’ They’ve only been here for ten minutes. They look pretty cool actually. They’re in the seahorse tank. I’ve been saying, ‘no’ for six months!”
Besides the fresh sushi and hospitality, there’s another draw at Castaways Waterfront Restaurant and Sushi Bar in Boot Key Harbor – the saltwater fish tanks! Now, stocked with a pair of poisonous spiny Lionfish from our surrounding waters! Owner John Mirabella admits to his initial apprehension.
“I kept saying, ‘no.’ I don’t feel like getting sung. I didn’t want fish in my tank that will hurt me. I had a pet eel that bit me while I was trying to clean the tank. That’s when I decided I didn’t want a predator-type of animal in there. I don’t want to be bit or stung.”
Mirabella won’t be sticking his hands in this tank! Gloved or not! The eel of his, ‘Pedro,’ was a monster. But, after the attack, John called See Life fish collector Andy Schlieper to sell him to someone else. He’s the same diver who captured the two Lionfish today off Sombrero Reef in 20’ – 24’ of water.
“I had a mesh net. I encountered them under a rock ledge and collected them in a net, put them in a container and brought them to the boat. They are a predator and some find them fascinating.”
John and his wife Arlene say elementary school children are the most wide-eyed when they’re able to view sea life in the tanks.
“Elementary kids go crazy,” supplies Mirabella. “They think they’re the coolest thing. Then, the moms are happy because the kids’ attention is occupied the entire time they’re here. I like to feed the fish when the kids are here.”
Besides the Lionfish, in John and Arlene’s tanks are starfish, spade fish, puffer fish, coral shrimp, sea urchins, hermit crabs, and snails to name a few. Recently, John took part in the Middle Keys Lionfish Derby with a couple of his buddies. He came up empty-handed encountering only lobster, a manatee, and a stingray! The two in his restaurant are the first he’s come face-to-face with. This past year Schlieper’s removed between 20 and 25 of them without targeting them, and sells them to wholesalers on the mainland.
In Key West, Angela Riley is the assistant manager at Pampered Pet. She attests the species is as beautiful as dangerous and some folks are opting to add them to their tanks instead of filleting for food.
“Building a saltwater aquarium can be an addictive hobby. Most people here have a wide variety of fish ranging from Damsel to Grouper, to Triggers, and Wrasses. I have had people coming in and asking about the Lionfish as we take them out of the ocean.”
With the Key West Lionfish Derby looming, she directs us on how to build an aquarium from scratch. One Lionfish needs, at least, a 30-gallon tank. Start here and purchase the appropriate filter. Lionfish can grow up to a foot in length, so plan accordingly, especially if you plan to have more than one in your tank. The first addition will be the saltwater. You can either use softened water from home and add a salt mix, or go to the ocean and collect water yourself. Let the water cycle through the filter for a few days to remove the ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates all toxic to fish. Then, add “live sand” purchased from a pet store such as Pampered Pet.
Here’s why you do not want to collect sand from the beach, according to Riley. “The sand has parasites, worms, and other bacteria. Live sand has beneficial bacteria. Add the sand to the water, and then wait a couple of days later to add rocks. Again, purchase ‘live rocks’ because it’s illegal to remove most rocks from our eco-system. This whole cycle takes from two to six weeks. After the water temperature is adjusted to between 74° and 80° then you can slowly begin to add fish.”
Mirabella describes the task as “tricky.”
“That little world you’re creating has to be perfectly balanced to be healthy for the fish. Bringing in other fish can make the other fish sick. The water chemistry can get thrown out of whack, and people banging on the tank can stress out the fish.”
And remember, Lionfish are going to eat anything that fits inside its mouth. Large, aggressive fish such as Groupers or Triggers tend to swim in harmony with them. Plan on finding or buying feeder fish. Lionfish have to be fed on a regular basis with minnows. Care for them with caution. You don’t ever want to touch one.
“The fact they have all the spines that radiate off of them,” reminds Riley, “they are venomous.” Which is why Mirabella will not be sticking his hands in this tank to clean the water.
“These are the first ones I’ve seen! I’ve yet to see one in the wild and they are really truly beautiful! I need to get on a team for the Key West Derby. Do you know anyone with a boat?”
The Lower Keys Key West Lionfish Derby is this Saturday, November 13! You can register at www.reef.org/lionfish or call 305-852-0330. Over $10,000 in cash and prizes is up for grabs. Of course, the Lionfish can be removed from the water at any time. An interesting fact: there are two markets for Lionfish. The ones you eat and the smaller sizes suitable for aquariums. Larger Lionfish measuring 12”-14” in length or longer sell like a lobster. Those like Mirabella’s between 4”- 6” are suitable for viewing.
We’ll tell you where one of the Lionfish was spotted. Nestled in the grooves of the target planes sunk right before Boca Grande Channel off the coast of Key West! Photo by Josie Koler
“Right after I spoke with you someone called wanting to know if we wanted to buy a Lionfish he found! We’re can’t. We’re not licensed to accept local fish. They have to be purchased from a retailer on the mainland.” Pampered Pet assistant manager chats with The Weekly in front of a 47-gallon saltwater tank.