Butcher Devin “Cowboy” Schultz demonstrates how he safely prepares lionfish — a highly invasive species — for home cooks to enjoy. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

With their fiery crimson and white stripes and ornate flared spines, lionfish are a striking inhabitant of many Caribbean coral reefs. However, the predatory fish is not native to these waters, and with their big appetites, they have become notorious for decimating delicate marine ecosystems.

The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration goes so far as to label lionfish the “poster child for invasive species issues.”

However, countries and territories including the Virgin Islands are exploring creative solutions for keeping the fish’s numbers in check, including removing them from the reefs and putting them on diner’s plates. But the process is not without risk, because the lionfish’s gaudy spines aren’t just for show: They deter most marine predators and can give humans a painful sting that can even be life threatening in rare cases.

Virgin Islands cooks are exploring creative culinary uses for the invasive lionfish. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

However, a knowledgeable butcher can navigate around the spikes and prepare the meat so it is safe for consumption, explained Devin “Cowboy” Schultz, who works at Steakation Butchers in Road Town.

Unique eats

Mr. Schultz was one of the special guests recently featured at the finale of Wreck Week 2023, where he offered the public an opportunity to try fried lionfish bites and other samples. While grouper, mahi mahi and other popular sport fish dominate most restaurant menus, marine experts are encouraging the public to give lionfish a try.

With a fillet knife, Mr. Schultz demonstrated how he removes the skin and then the meat from the fish’s sides, taking care to avoid the spikes as much as possible. The US-based National Capital Poison Center warns that stings can be painful, causing swelling and muscle weakness, but are easy to treat at home.

Only the tips of the needle-like spines pose a threat, Mr. Schultz said. Unlike the infamous fugu pufferfish, the toxin is not embedded in any part of the meat of the lionfish.

Mr. Schultz then used a cleaver to remove the spines, leaving the rest of the fish that can be used to make fish stock. He described the fish as structured like a snapper, but with the texture of a grouper. Cooks can prepare lionfish in similar ways, but he added that it is a great fish for experimenting with creative preparations.

Impact on reefs

Even one invasive lionfish can have a notable impact on delicate coral reefs. A 2008 study by the Oregon State University Department of Zoology found that a single lionfish can reduce the number of adult fish of native reef species by 79 percent in a year.

Mr. Schultz describes the fish as structured like a snapper, but with the texture of a grouper. Cooks can prepare lionfish in similar ways, but he added that it is a great fish for experimenting with creative preparations. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

Their consumption of native algae-eating fish also negatively affects the health of coral reefs, according to the NOAA. The United States Geological Survey said in a report on the invasive species last year that numbers have increased dramatically since 2000, spreading throughout the Western North Atlantic, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.

“The remarkable speed with which lionfishes have invaded the region is unprecedented and alarming,” the report states.

Concern in VI

That concern rings true for the VI as well, according to dive experts.

Sophia Peppard, a dive expert with Blue Water Divers, explained that the number of lionfish on some of the VI’s most popular dive sites remains somewhat manageable, but there appear to be many more waiting just on the outskirts.

“As soon as you go off the dive sites, there are hundreds and hundreds of lionfish,” she said, adding that it was a particular problem on less frequented sites and in reefs further off the shore.

The neighbouring United States VI has been making efforts to curb the invasive fish through the Caribbean Lionfish Response Program, which was established in the territory around 2009.

Ms. Peppard said she recently spoke with divers from St. Thomas about their management efforts.

“They were saying how they think that they’ve managed to control their lionfish situation quite well,” she said. “It definitely would be beneficial for us to work together and help each other.”

Blue Water Divers administrator Aja Norton added that other Caribbean restaurants are already serving lionfish in restaurants, and said it is a good time for the VI to explore it as an option.


The management of lionfish will also be a focus of the 2024 Wreck Week, according to BVI Scuba Organisation President Kim Huish.

The annual event, which made its return last year after a brief hiatus, highlights the unique offerings of VI diving locations, bringing together international visitors and a variety of industry stakeholders for a week of activities.

Ms. Huish said such partners are currently exploring options to test lionfish in the territory’s waters for ciguatera, a toxin that can cause extreme digestive distress for people who consume fish with it.

Collaborative testing

A widespread testing effort would likely require collaboration among dive companies, conservation organisations, and the government, Ms. Huish said. Ideally, fishers would document where exactly they caught their fish and send the information out for testing to determine which areas would be safest for fishing.

This will be an important step in bringing lionfish to diners’ plates, Ms. Huish said.

Fewer lionfish would also relieve some predatory pressure on juvenile fish that have long been staples in VI cuisine, she added.

Ms. Peppard said, “Encouraging restaurants to serve lionfish on their daily menus would also support the fishermen being able to go out and catch them, if there is a demand for them. Then we can, if not solve, dramatically reduce the issue.”

Caribbean response

Experts at a 2014 symposium in Barbados said a lionfish market is “practical, feasible and should be promoted,” according to NOAA.

The organisation also found that efforts to locally control the spread of lionfish, particularly through spearfishing, can be effective and should be encouraged.

How often Steakcation carries lionfish depends on the local fishers who supply it, Mr. Schultz said.

While it may be a challenge for restaurants to feature lionfish on their menus without a more significant demand and supply, he said partners are discussing a way forward in the interest of protecting VI reefs.