BBTS, Carteret Catch, Discovery Diving & CMast partner to battle Lionfish Invasion.

BBTS, Carteret Catch, Discovery Diving & CMast partner to battle Lionfish Invasion.

Cooking up new way to control lionfish

Freshly prepared
Executive Chef Tim Coyne seasons a freshly prepared tray of lionfish fillets stuffed with a spring vegetable and lionfish mousse that was topped with a scampi glaze on Wednesday at Bistro By The Sea. (Dylan Ray photo)

‘If You Can’t Beat ’em, Eat ’em’



In an attempt to raise awareness of the lionfish invasive species problems in the Atlantic Ocean, Carteret Catch is set to host its third annual “If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Eat ‘em Lionfish Spearfishing Tournament,” from Friday, May 29, through Sunday, June 7.

Carteret Catch puts the tournament together with help from its members Bistro by the Sea, Discovery Diving, Seahorse Coastal Consulting and Eastern Carolina Artificial Reef Association.

The tournament is a 10-day event that begins with an educational forum and training session held at Discovery Diving Friday, May 29. Participants in the tournament will learn about the origins of the lionfish epidemic, discover issues associated with the epidemic and learn how to properly spearfish and collect lionfish without being envenomed by their venomous spines.

Special scuba diving charters have been set aside during the competition that will take participants to locations that are heavily populated with lionfish.

Additionally, some of the catch will be prepared for participants at the closing ceremony at 5 p.m. Sunday, June 7. All of these activities work to educate the public on the facts of the lionfish and their possible addition to a dinner menu.

Funds raised will help support an upcoming artificial reef project set to plunge nearly 60 feet into the Atlantic Ocean at offshore reef site AR-330, near the wreck of USS Indra on Saturday, July 18. The 180-foot menhaden boat will become a new underwater reef in honor of the late James J. Francesconi, who worked for the N.C. Department of Marine Fisheries as its Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) project coordinator where he worked on the creation of several reef sites along the coast.

Charlie Coffman, of Cedar Point, says he is part of tournament efforts to raise funding for the memorial artificial reef that will serve as a new fish habitat for recreational fishermen and scuba divers. He will return this year to help charter dives to capture lionfish.

Not only does he know how good lionfish taste, he says that he has also experienced a sting on his hand.

He said, “It hurts, and the only way I can describe it is like getting 50 shots at one time meanwhile having your hand slammed by a sledgehammer for several days following.”

After the sting, he shared there were days of swelling, and he was treated with an antibiotic. He said his experience has led him to teach other divers how to properly capture lionfish not only for food, but to also help resolve the intrusion issue, something he helps solve with a team of divers and instructors at Discovery Diving in Beaufort.

Mr. Coffman added, “Not only do they multiple at alarming rates, but they are also quickly depleting the area’s native species that so many local fishermen rely as a primary source of income.”

Although the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently reported by Liz Biro on the N.C. Coastal Federation’s website,, that lionfish stings threaten divers and swimmers, their meat is safe to eat. Diners will experience a moist, mild-flavored taste that members the N.C. State University Seafood Laboratory says is similar in texture and flavor to pink snapper.

In fact, southeast diners have encountered so many lionfish, many have contributed recipes to various publications, including the Lionfish Hunter website at

Tricia Ferguson, a chef, along with Lad Akins, the executive director of REEF, compiled a collection of recipes in its book, Lionfish Cookbook.

According to the Carteret Catch website, lionfish are native in the Indo-Pacific oceans and are an invasive species in the Atlantic Ocean and populations of these fish have been steadily moving up the coast from Florida since the early ‘90s.

The population has become more prevalent in this region due to the following:

•They do not have natural predators in the Atlantic Ocean.

•They eat approximately half of their own body weight each day, which leads to rapid growth and maturation.

•Scientists believe that females are mature after six months and can lay about 30,000 eggs every four days

•Traditional fishing methods have not worked to harvest these fish.

Such a combination of issues has proven to be an incredibly toxic and destructive mix for the native species of grouper, snapper and crustaceans in the fertile waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Native species are now competing for grazing space and young native species are quickly becoming dinner for the lionfish.

Despite the great numbers NOAA states lionfish are still difficult to find at retail markets and the best way to source them is through divers or bottom fishing anglers.

Lionfish rarely bite a hook and most are speared or trapped in hand-held nets, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

As reported by Ms. Biro, symptoms listed by Atlantis Charters Diving and Fishing Adventures in Atlantic Beach include “nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, tremors, abnormal heart rhythms, weakness, shortness of breath, seizures, decreased blood pressure, fainting and paralysis. Death can occur if not treated for stings.”

For official rules of the tournament, visit

 Posted: Friday, May 22, 2015 12:00 pm

Cooking up new way to control lionfish MIKE SHUTAK Carolina Coast Online | 3 comments

MOREHEAD CITY — At Bistro by the Sea Wednesday evening, 40 guests got to try a new type of seafood and help with a project to control an invasive species in North Carolina.

The bistro, along with N.C. Sea Grant, Carteret Catch, Discovery Diving and the Eastern Carolina Artificial Reef Association, held a tasting of a potential new item for the bistro’s menu: lionfish.

This species has been invading the waters of the Atlantic coast since the 1980s, so in an effort to keep them in check, the tasting hosts have been working on creating a market and a commercial fishery.

The bistro’s guests came from around this county, as well as neighboring Craven and Onslow counties. Libby Eaton, co-owner and operator of Bistro by the Sea, said they were invited from a pool of the bistro’s regular customers, as well as local marine scientists.

The menu for the evening consisted of an appetizer and an entrée, both with lionfish as the main ingredient, provided by Discovery Diving. Tim Coyne, co-owner and head chef of the bistro, said once you learn to get around the lionfish’s venomous quills, it’s a good, simple fish to work with in the kitchen.

“Filleting it is a little more of a challenge than other fish,” he said.

For the appetizer, Mr. Coyne and his staff made lionfish sliders ­– small lionfish fillets in a light tempura batter on mini toasted buns served with an Asian coleslaw. For the entrée, they made a lionfish mousse with spring vegetables sandwiched between two lionfish fillets with a scampi glaze.

N.C. Sea Grant funded the tasting. Barry Nash, Sea Grant’s seafood technology and marketing specialist, said they’d need to go over the written survey results collected on score sheets provided to each guest, but what the guests said during the tasting was promising.

“The verbal results tell me people like the product and would buy it,” he said, “which is the purpose of this project.”

Among the guests were Ray Harris of Stella and his wife, Frankie. Mr. Harris said he thought it was one of the best meals he’s had in a long time.

“The fish could go on top of anything, and the flavor could carry itself,” he said.

Sheilia Griffis of Morehead City and her husband, Dick, also took part in the tasting. Ms. Griffis said she thought the lionfish was delicious.

“I think it’s one of the best fish I’ve ever eaten,” she said. “I’d pay top dollar for it. The texture was perfect and it wasn’t too fishy.”

During dinner, several guests said lionfish is similar to flounder with a mild flavor and a soft texture. Some said the texture was “flaky and not mushy.” Some thought that the appetizer might have been better without the bun, possibly on a bed of coleslaw.

Ms. Eaton said they decided to host the lionfish tasting because she wants to help combat the lionfish invasion by serving it at her restaurant and create a viable commercial fishery for local watermen. Ms. Eaton is one of the founders of the lionfish spearfishing tournament called “If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Eat ‘em,” going on its third year from Friday, May 29, through Sunday, June 7.

Ms. Eaton said she’d like to add lionfish to her menu as a regular item, if they can develop a commercial fishery for them. Currently harvesting is too expensive because there hasn’t been commercial fishing gear developed that can reliably catch lionfish. Only spearfishing seems to work, and that requires scuba divers.

Dr. Janelle Fleming, an oceanographer, CEO of Seashore Coastal Consulting and member of the Eastern Carolina Artificial Reef Association, told the guests at the tasting about the lionfish invasion going on in North Carolina and along the Atlantic coast. The invasion started in the 1980s. While the exact cause is no longer certain, it’s largely believed to be the result of lionfish being released from aquariums in southern Florida.

“They have one of the first established populations (of lionfish) here in North Carolina,” Dr. Fleming said.

Lionfish are most often found in deep waters, as far down as 130 feet. Lionfish are long-lived, some living for several decades. They have a high temperature tolerance, though water temperatures seem to dictate where they’re found.

Lionfish become sexually mature in about one year, with a larval stage of about 25 days after hatching. Once mature, the fish will release eggs once every four days, which are then carried by the ocean currents.

Dr. Fleming said the big issue with lionfish in local waters is the impact to the ecology.

“They can live in high density; over 200 adults per acre,” she said. “They’re generalist carnivores. They’ll eat anything. They consume over 70 species, including commercially important species, and have no known predators in the Atlantic.”

Dr. Fleming said lionfish populations have become so firmly established in the Atlantic, there isn’t any way to eradicate them at this point. Instead, researchers like Dr. Fleming and her colleagues are looking for ways to control the lionfish through commercial fishing and consumption.

“We know we can spearfish them,” she said. “Now we need to see if we can come up with a commercial fishery.”

To that end, Dr. Fleming and her colleagues are using a grant from N.C. Sea Grant to design and test fish traps to find a design that can catch lionfish. So far the most promising design has been a modified Maine lobster trap.

Dr. Fleming said they deployed test traps in May of 2014 and retrieved them that June. The traps each had four to six lionfish in them and had others swimming around the traps when they retrieved them. The only issue was in order to collect them, the researchers still had to send down divers.

Some bycatch was found in the traps with the lionfish along with a few spiny and slipper lobsers, some sea snails and a few grouper. However, Dr. Fleming said the amounts of bycatch weren’t concerning compared to other fishing gears.

The researchers re-deployed the test traps last June, but lost their traps in Hurricane Arthur the next month. Dr. Fleming said, however, the traps are designed to fall apart after about a month to prevent ghost fishing.

Dr. Fleming said she and her colleagues have received an exempted fishing permit from the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries to continue their research. She said they plan to re-deploy more test traps in a month.

Contact Mike Shutak at 252-726-7081 ext. 206, email; or follow on Twitter at

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