Changing Planet

Top 5 Myths About Lionfish

National Geographic Young Explorer Erin Spencer will spend one month in the Florida Keys documenting efforts by beachside locals to contain a recent and dangerous influx of invasive lionfish. Follow along with The Lionfish Project on Explorers Journal, Erin’s project website, Facebook page, and Twitter


There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding the lionfish invasion in the Western Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico. With the invasion being a relatively new phenomenon (at least to most people), there’s bound to be some misinformation flying around. Here are the top five misconception about lionfish and the facts behind them. Knowing the truth behind lionfish puts us one step closer to figuring out a solution to the problem!


Myth #1: Lionfish are poisonous.

Truth: Lionfish are venomous, not poisonous– there is a difference. Although both venomous and poisonous animals produce a toxin that can be harmful to other organisms, the method of delivery is different. Venomous organisms use a specific apparatus like spines or teeth to inject their toxin. Poisonous organisms, on the other hand, require their victim to ingest or absorb the toxin. Lionfish possess venomous dorsal, pelvic, and anal spines that deliver toxin through an unpleasant puncture wound. Each spine is surrounded by a loose sheath that is pushed down during envonemation, compressing two venom glands located down then length of the spine. Neurotoxic venom then travels through two parallel grooves up the spine and into an unhappy victim. On the bright side, this means that as long as you stay away from the spines, you’re good to go!

IMG_0734 This lionfish’s spines have been exposed by the retracted sheath. Photo by Erin Spencer.
This lionfish’s spines have been exposed by the retracted sheath. Photo by Erin Spencer.


Myth #2: Lionfish were released in the Atlantic when an aquarium flooded during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Truth: Lionfish were first spotted near Dania, Florida in 1985, years before Hurricane Andrew. The initial source of the invasion can be pinpointed to personal aquarium releases, probably by people who’s lionfish were getting too big for the tank or eating the other fish. A recent study suggests that the invasion can be narrowed to just eight or twelve individuals who interbred. Over time, larvae dispersed up the east coast of the United States and the Caribbean through oceanic currents, bringing the lionfish invasion to its current size and severity.


Myth #3: Predators can be trained to hunt lionfish on their own.

Truth: There have been numerous instances of predators such as sharks, eels, and grouper feasting on lionfish – but typically only after a diver has offered the lionfish to them first. This raises concerns due to the inherent risks involved with teaching wild animals to see humans and expect a free meal. There have even been reports of sharks, eels, and barracuda becoming aggressive towards lionfish hunters in anticipation of handouts. Additionally, a recently released study that examined lionfish/predator abundance throughout the Caribbean over the course of three years determined that there was no correlation between native predator densities and lionfish densities, suggesting that native predators do not influence the successful invasion of lionfish. As great as it would be to have native predators feasting on these invaders, it looks like humans are really the only true lionfish predators in their invasive territory.

The intricate coloring and patterns of the lionfish make them a very popular aquarium fish. Photo by Erin Spencer


Myth #4: You can’t eat lionfish.

Truth: Because lionfish are venomous, not poisonous (see above!), there is no harm in eating the lionfish meat. Once you dispose of the spines, there is no risk of envenomation, and you’re free to prepare your lionfish as you choose. Fortunately for the eco-friendly fish lovers out there, lionfish are delicious. Their white, buttery meat lends itself to any number of different recipes. In fact, there are many restaurants throughout the Caribbean and southern United States that are featuring lionfish on their menus to promote awareness while satisfying customers. Check out last week’s blog post for a few of my favorite lionfish recipes.


Myth #5: There’s nothing we can do. 

Truth: They may be excellent invaders, but locals throughout the non-native range have developed some pretty ingenious solutions—and it’s working.  Dive operations remove lionfish regularly, meaning you’ll be hard pressed to find lionfish on most of the popular dive sites. Lionfish derbies, or fishing competitions that award prizes for the largest, smallest, and most lionfish captured, are becoming more popular and are an excellent way to clean the reef and spread awareness. From 2009-2012, derbies run by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) removed a grand total 0f 10,231 lionfish, and that number is rising. Additionally, a mini-industry has arisen around these spiny invaders as individuals develop increasingly more effective tools for removal. Although many researchers agree that complete eradication of lionfish is impossible, there are certainly ways to keep the population in check and protect the native marine ecosystems of the Western Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean.

Celebrating underwater with my first lionfish capture. The diving community is integral in decreasing lionfish numbers on invaded reefs. Photo by Curt Slonim.
Celebrating underwater with my first lionfish capture. The diving community is integral in decreasing lionfish numbers on invaded reefs. Photo by Curt Slonim.


NEXT: Lionfish: Gotta Eat ‘Em to Beat ‘Em

Erin Spencer is a National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee and an undergraduate student at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Her research focuses on local responses to invasive lionfish in the Florida Keys, mainly highlighting individuals who are developing unique ways to address the lionfish problem. Previously, she interned in the National Geographic Digital Media Travel department.
  • Matthew Hines
  • Leighton Cavendish

    Great information. And the fish is delicious…under a gas flame with a little herb butter, olive oil and light squeeze of lemon or lime.

  • Alex Kattan

    Great article Erin! Well done!

  • Lisa Waugh

    Thanks for the informative article! Check out our effective tools for removal:

  • Not Eating That

    I was always told to never eat reef fish…
    Ciguatera is a foodborne illness caused by eating certain reef fish whose flesh is contaminated with toxins originally produced by dinoflagellates such as Gambierdiscus toxicus which live in tropical and subtropical waters. These dinoflagellates adhere to coral, algae and seaweed, where they are eaten by herbivorous fish who in turn are eaten by larger carnivorous fish. The symptoms can last from weeks to years, and in extreme cases as long as 20 years, often leading to long-term disability.

  • Norah

    I love lion fish thx for the imfo an myth busting on the top 5 myths on lion fish

  • rowan bennett

    Hi,try to avoid eating any fish for a few years and let the oceans recover, that goes for all of us.

  • Skylar

    Great article! I love that they showed the difference between venom and poison. To be honest, I have Always been a stickler when it came between those two.

  • Mickey Knox

    It struck me as I was reading this that the NatGeo article is a knock off of a more complete “myth busting” article the World Lionfish Hunters Association a few months ago…

  • Mickey Knox
  • CMM
  • phoebekeziah sutanto

    The lion fish is very amazing with it’s beatiful color!

  • trevon demetri

    it is nice when u fry it then cook it down in coconut juice

  • Cecil King

    Thank you Nat’l Geo. Viewed your presentation this morning on the telly. What a challenging and fascinating problem. I think we have a responsibilty to our creator to try and restore things as they were before our rather lavish lifeways put our planet in such danger.

  • Paul Blossfield

    While living on Key West in 1966, I almost caught a lion fish while fishing off a dock. Luckily I was warned not to by a youngster that was walking by at the time. So lion fish have been there much longer than 1985.

  • Machead

    CMM et al

    Yes Lionfish MAY HAVE excessive ciguatera,, so may any large Finfish in the Ocean. Note: since the start of the “eat Lionfish” campaign throughout the Caribbean (2010) there have been no new reports of dinners suffering poisoning… and even the FDA won’t specify at what level ciguatera presence is deadly or dangerous.

  • John Jay

    So many believe that in a hurricane a house with lionfish in USA was the source of the lionfish invasion. I have a much more plausible theory. First off tidal rise during a Hurricane would put the lionfish in a terrible state smashing a tank with dirty nasty water then dragging these fish across land to the sea. I doubt the would survive to find each other again and reproduce

    My theory is, the Atlantis Hotel in Bahamas. this giant tank of sharks lionfish and other sea creatures has an open system. That means they don’t make artificial salt water like other aquariums they draw in water from the sea on the high tide and refresh the water everyday. The lionfish fry would exit the system every water exchange. The lionfish were first reported on the fl coast but the first real huge numbers were in the Bahamas. well prevailing currents and winds go from the Bahamas to Fl not the other way around. Could 8 individuals in FL swim upstream and against prevailing wind to make the first lionfish population explosion in the Bahamas? Not likely. could the release of tens of thousands of lionfish fry and eggs in the the Bahamian sea be the cause? Yes johnsreef,com

  • Pat Branch

    Why not introduce sterile males into the population?

  • Leo Jablonski

    I saw a lionfish while skin-diving (free-diving) off of Hollywood, Florida, in 1973 or 1974. I assumed that it was once someone’s pet. Six months ago, while scuba diving off of Cozumel, Mexico, I observed a barracuda promptly removing and eating a lionfish from another diver’s spear. I can’t seem to find any information about the immunity that a barracuda may have to the venom.

  • Gavirio Vicuta

    Nothing can be done to curtail their expansion. The so-called invasion is a classic tale of hysteria as very little is known about them even in their natural habitat and most of the so-called facts and truths are based on sheer hysterical speculation. How are local species adapting to their presence? We don’t know. How much damage are they actually inflicting? We don’t know. How much have their larvae contributed to the diet and development of other species? We don’t know… In reality, we just don’t know jack about this fish…

  • Iman Sayed

    A very interesting species of fish. Visually stunning however wouldn’t want to get up close and personal with one. Can’t fish them out due to the fact they don’t take bait. With an overpopulation of them in the Bahamas, they are simply wiping out reef fish. Spear fishing is an idea. Anyone have about 15 million spears? Lol

  • Dani W

    i saw a lion fish when i was snorkeling and me and my friend were chasing it and toching it with our flippers, we later went to an aquarium and learnt that we were “messing” with a very dangerous fish, lol.

  • markntx

    I had a lion fish in my salt water aquarium, very cool visualy and ferocious predator. It was fairly smart to in that it would come to the surface when it saw someone bringing over goldfish to ensure it got its dinner first. With that said the trigger fish eventually ended up kiling it after they had broken off its spines. Well I think it was that order one night I went to bed next morining the body was on the bottom and the triggers were swarming it.

    How anyone even back then in the 80’s thought releasing an obviously aggressive feeder like a lion fish into the ocean to be a good idea is amazing to me.

  • James

    Humans pollute the Atlantic with unwanted Lion Fish that never wanted to be taken to an aquarium in the first place. Lion Fish thrive in the Atlantic. Humans can’t have that. Humans start mass competitions to eliminate Lion Fish. Nice job, a-holes. Like all of Earth’s problems, humans start it and then deal with it by blaming the animals.

  • Mark

    I have a new love for the lion fish. My fav. The only problem I have is there not as plentiful as I would like. I love the white flakes. Non fishy taste.

  • Rossi

    I come from Curacao and we have problems with lionfishes too. But we do catch them with hand line when bottomfishing for other species. They are delisious because they eat smaller groupers, snappers, lobster, shrimps and eggs of anything which roam the seas. mmmmmm

  • Pingback: Lionfish problem in Caribbean (Should Scuba Divers Kill Them?)()

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