Jason Jones had thoughts of big game fish — tuna, amberjack, wahoo and maybe even vermillion snapper — when he went fishing last weekend in the Gulf of Mexico.
Yet, the catch of the day was a much smaller fish, a species that he would never target with hook and line, and one that has the Biloxi man in line for a possible world record and coastal fishermen and biologists extremely worried.
Jones caught a l-pound, 11.2-ounce lionfish, which was certified by biologist Alex Fogg at the Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs. The fish is expected to become the first lionfish recognized as a state record by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources at its Feb. 24 meeting. Jones is preparing paperwork to submit to the International Game Fish Association for acceptance. The current world record of 1 pound, 10 ounces was established off Port Canaveral, Fla., in 2013.
“It was a normal trip my friends and I try to make about twice a month. We were fishing at the popular MP-265 rig,” Jones said. “I didn’t have any idea it may be a record, but a buddy on the trip was a professional spear fisherman and he knew right away it had to be a record.”
Fogg, who is working on his Masters degree by studying the lionfish, said Jones caught the fish in 205 feet of water on the bottom.
“I went back and dove the rig the next day and I found lionfish in the entire water column until I stopped at about 160 feet,” Fogg said. “People think lionfish are a Florida problem, but they are not. We have them in Mississippi. As a matter of fact, I have documented lionfish in all five northern Gulf states and all the way to Mexico.”
This is not to be celebrated as a new game fish to be treasured by fishermen, anywhere in the Gulf. Fogg said the spread of lionfish is bad news.
“Lionfish compete with everything,” he said. “They are not very selective on food. They will eat anything. If it fits in their mouth, it’s game on. They eat fish. They eat crabs. They eat it all, and they eat the same things that our groupers and snappers eat, the small stuff that the fish we care about eat. They are voracious; I once found 70 fish in the stomach of one lionfish.
“Right now, with the snapper populations in the shape they’re in, and the pressure we have on grouper and other species, the whole thing in the Gulf is a mess, and you throw these lionfish in and it creates a bigger mess.”
Myriad problems come with the lionfish.
First, while it feeds voraciously on anything and everything, they add nothing back to the Gulf as a food source for larger fish.
“Their spines are venomous and in the Gulf, they have no natural predators, at least none that we have identified,” Foxx said. “They are not poisonous; they are venomous which means you have to be pricked to be affected. I’ve been stuck many times, and it ranges from a simple ‘ouch’ to some pretty excruciating pain. I don’t think there’s ever been a documented case of death associated to lionfish venom but if you were allergic it could lead to some serious implications. Since it is a protein-based venom, the best immediate treatment is to run the wound under warm water. Heat denatures the venom.”
The venom is what keeps predators from dining on lionfish.
“I think it’s clear that a bigger predator eating one, and getting pricked, would learn real quick that it isn’t something they want to endure,” Fogg said. “Tests have been done with fish that eat eggs and we’ve found that they stay away from lionfish eggs. They avoid them, so there is a thought that the venom exists in the eggs. They will not eat the eggs.”
Which brings us to the second area of concern — eggs, millions of them.
“Lionfish are very prolific spawners, and unlike most Gulf fish that spawn once a year, female lionfish can spawn like every three or four days and they can produce upwards of 27,000 eggs each time, and there’s been documentation of up to 100,000 eggs from one female,” Foxx said. “Think about those numbers. That’s why they have exploded so fast. The first lionfish wasn’t documented in the Gulf of Mexico until 2010 and now they are all over the northern Gulf.”
Foxx said the No. 1 theory for their arrival in American waters is from a release from a private aquarium. A beautiful, colorful and spiny fish, the lionfish is popular with aquarium owners.
“It is thought that when they got big and were eating everything, some aquarium owners decided to get rid of them and released them in the Atlantic,” Foxx said. “It was just a matter of time until a male found a fertile female and they reproduced and started the ball rolling. The first one was documented in the Atlantic waters off the Florida coast in 1985, but by the 1990s, they were established on the Atlantic all the way to the Carolinas.”
A third problem is their choice of habitat.
“We are finding them on the same structures and cover that we find most of our game fish, natural and artificial reefs and oil rigs,” Foxx said. “That’s where the snapper, grouper and so many other fish congregate. And the lionfish is very flexible in its tolerance to depth and temperature.
“They have been documented as deep as 1,000 feet, and as shallow as 6 inches. They can handle temperatures as low as 50 degrees and out in the open Gulf of Mexico, offshore, the waters rarely go below that, and that’s just on the surface.
“Their preferred depth, or at least where we find the most concentrations is between 90 and 120 feet. But, that may just be because that’s about the depths that most divers and spear fishermen go.”
The good news for Mississippi is that our most fertile area, one that serves as a nursery for shrimp and a lot of our game fish, is normally too cold for lionfish in the winter months.
“The Mississippi Sound, which is so vital as a nursery, will get below and stay below 50 degrees in most winters,” Foxx said. “The lionfish have to vacate and they do.”
Hopefully, once they leave they realize this is not a full-time home and will not return.
Lionfish are not a true sporting fish in that they are very difficult to catch on a hook and line.
“Most of them come from spearfishing,” Foxx said. “Let me use my study as an example. I have had between 15,000 and 20,000 lionfish in my study and less than 100 of them have been captured on hook and line. The rest are from spears.
“In Florida, spear fishing tournaments targeting lionfish are becoming popular. We’ve removed over 8,000 in those tournaments. I worked with one group to hold about five events off Pensacola and we had one with 12 fishermen who took 2,400 in one day.”
Fogg said that they are a nice fish to take home to the table.
They require careful handling, even when dead and just off ice, but lionfish yield a nice flakey white flesh filet that is extremely tasty.