ConservationHow to FishSpearfishing

How To Clean Lionfish

On a recent trip to the Bahamas, I was amazed at how prevalent the lionfish had become. While the fish’s full impact will not be known for several years, the fish have really become a nuisance on coral reefs. So, anglers and divers have taken matters into their own hands to help remove this invasive species. Even though they are covered in dangerous spines, if you know how to fillet lionfish safely they are very tasty.

Like most nonnative creatures, lionfish have no natural checks and balances to keep their numbers in control. The other negative is that lionfish eat anything that fits in their mouth. We watched them eat fish, shrimp, crabs and other native creatures. To do your part, go ahead and eliminate any of these fish that you may encounter. It will help the marine environment.

As an incentive to get divers and fishermen to remove lionfish, officials in Florida and the Bahamas have been spreading the word that lionfish are actually a tasty fish in hopes of making them a targeted species on hook and line, or for spear fishermen.

It peaked my curiosity enough to try them. They weren’t lying. The meat is white/translucent and the cleaned fillets made for some awesome eating. You don’t get a very big fillet, but it’s not too hard to get a handful of them.

It may look like we are casually handling these lionfish in the pictures, but we are actually being extremely carefull with them due to the fish’s hypodermic spines that inject a very painful venom. We caught a bunch of live fish in a tropical net, and speared more with a pole spear. We carefully swam each one back to the boat and raked them off into a bucket of ice water.

How to Fillet Lionfish

Here’s my warning: Do not attempt to fillet lionfish, or even handle them at all, until they are very dead! The following photos depict how I cleaned the lionfish after they kicked the bucket. We pan-fried them and they tasted awesome!

On this trip we shot a mess of lions around shallow coral heads with our pole spears. The queen snapper came from fishing the deep drops in 1,500 feet of water.

Only after the lionfish is totally dead do you want to mess with them. Be extremely carefull of all of the fish’s spines as they will pierce you and inject a painful toxin.

I snipped the spines off with side cutters, like our West Coast friends do with sculpin (which happen to be related to lionfish). Be smart about how you discard the fins as they are still potent. The poison is denatured with heat, so if you do get poked for some reason, hot water will help relieve the pain as you seek medical help. Trust me, a lionfish sting is not for the meek!

cutting spines off lionfish to safely fillet them

Once the fins are off, you can then fillet lionfish like any other fish and remove the skin and rib bones.

how to fillet lionfish

Cut the small row of bones down the centerline and then cook and enjoy. If you did get toxin on the meat, it is denatured by the heat of cooking. I don’t think lionfish meat would make for good sashimi or sushi for that reason. This is one fish that is best served cooked.

lionfish fillets

Beware of the Lionfish!

The spines from a lionfish carry a nasty venom that will give you a very serious sting if it punctures your skin, but that’s not the biggest danger this fish carries. Lionfish pose a very serious risk to coral reefs in the Atlantic and Caribbean. This nonnative species feeds on practically anything that swims. They can easily devour the young of popular game fish such as snapper, grouper and sea bass, many of which use reefs as nursery grounds. Lionfish ambush their prey using their outstretched, fan-like pectoral fins to corner their next mea.They don’t sting their prey, though. Their spines are used mostly for defense. Lionfish are seriously reducing the numbers of other reef fish without any real competition.

Lionfish are native to the tropical waters of the South Pacific and Indian Oceans. They have few predators in their native range and none of any note in U.S. waters, where they occupy the upper levels of the food chain. Humans are the only known predators, so don’t be afraid to add a few to your fish box. Be careful of those spines, but don’t feel bad about targeting lionfish.

Capt. Scott Goodwin
Capt. Scott Goodwin started fishing in the lakes of Kentucky where he grew up. A move to Florida, however, brought him into a whole new realm of fishi...