Lionfish: from the spear, to supper, to science

Below is a guest post by Serena Hackerott, an undergraduate in my lab.

This summer has been such an exciting adventure! I have gained invaluable research experience and have learned a lot about working in marine science. My project has been filled with surprises, adventures, challenges, and many important lessons. One of my favorite experiences in Belize was interacting with the local people and the tourists who were on the islands where we stopped each afternoon. After each diving day, we would carry our tools and buckets of lionfish to the edge of the dock for

processing. It was not long before a crowd gathered to see the beautifully strange looking fish we had collected. Most tourists had never seen a lionfish and while the locals were familiar with the species, they were afraid of the poisonous fish. I enjoyed explaining to the crowds the negative impacts lionfish were having on the reefs, what our project entailed, and how it was important to find a solution to the lionfish problem. Many of the locals asked more specific and practical questions such as what parts of the fish were poisonous or if they were safe to eat.   

Surprisingly, most of the locals we encountered were skeptical about eating lionfish. Our Belizean captain, in particular, was adamant that he would never eat lionfish and he told us we were crazy for eating it every night for dinner. After we survived three nights of lionfish meals he finally gave in, trying a single bite, and admitted it tasted like snapper. Like most of the Caribbean, Belizean reefs are overfished and fishermen are often hard-pressed to find acceptable fish to catch and sell. If there was a demand of lionfish in the markets, fishermen would have a new, abundant, and easy-to-catch target. Near the end of the trip, one of the most rewarding moments was when a local woman came out from her house and asked to take the lionfish fillets since we weren’t going to eat them that night. It was very exciting to see her curiosity and enthusiasm about trying lionfish for the first time. I felt like I was making an important local impact by educating people about lionfish and promoting their capture.

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After Belize, Katie, the Bruno Lab’s tech, and I stayed at UNC Institute of Marine Science in Morehead City for two weeks to process the 100+ otoliths we had collected, with the help of the Fodrie Lab. The Fodrie Lab was extremely helpful in teaching us the general otolith preparation procedures. Each species has a unique otolith, however, so other than the general guidance, Katie and I were on our own. Thankfully, we were able to contact Dr. Potts of NOAA who gave us more lionfish specific advice. It was tedious work, and frustrating at times, but by the end of two weeks we had completed all of the preparations and felt confident that we had mastered “the art” behind otolith processing. We are currently in the Bahamas collecting more lionfish data and otoliths to process when we return!

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