Stalking the Lionfish, For Research and Dinner

Snorkeling in Florida’s Indian River lagoon estuary, Emily Dark found something that piqued her already-keen interest in marine ecosystems the lionfish.

Dark, a master’s student in AUNE’s Conservation Biology program, was spending last summer on an internship with the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce, Florida. Poking around southeast Florida’s mangrove forests, she discovered the fantastically colored lionfish, its head bristling with the venomous spines that give it its name.

Just six individuals were released during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and now the lionfish, a popular ornamental fish native to the western Pacific, infests the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and Florida’s east coast. It’s a carnivore that eats and competes for food with many native fish species, threatening the biodiversity of the region’s coral reefs.

How will it affect the estuary?
The 156-mile-long Indian River estuary is home to more than 4,300 species of plants and animals. Emily wants to help answer the question: how will the lionfish affect the estuary, the most biologically diverse estuary in North America, in the future? Next spring, she will work with Jeff Beal, a fisheries habitat specialist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, to study the lionfish invasion of the lagoon for her master’s thesis. Her advisor is Beth Kaplin, core faculty member in AUNE’s Department of Environmental Studies.

“Emily is now part of an Indian River working group, comprising many agencies and organizations working together to combat the threat of the invasive fish. “I want my research to be useful in this whole event….especially since this is such a critical estuary,” she said. “I will be looking at the extent of the invasion, removal effects, and diet to get an idea of what species they are competing with.”

A fascination with fish
Marine wildlife has always fascinated Emily, an avid snorkeler and scuba diver. A native of Peterborough, New Hampshire, she has been traveling to the Caribbean since she was very young and for the past six years has lived in Vieques, Puerto Rico. Now she hopes to add valuable research to the effort to curtail the lionfish’s invasion of the ocean environment she loves.

The good news: lionfish are edible for humans; and they’re delicious. “Sushi-grade,” according to Emily. “Lionfish are best raw with soy sauce and wasabi, or ceviche style—raw with lime juice, cilantro, garlic, maybe a little mango thrown in there. Fillets are great with butter, lemon, basil, honey, garlic, and then broiled!”

Read an article in the Daytona Beach News-Journal about the lionfish and Emily’s work.

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