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Hunting Lionfish in the Caribbean (Eating Them Too!)

It’s not every day that a girl gets to go hunting lionfish.

Lionfish, if you don’t know, are those beautiful fish with long white tendrils on their back (called dorsal spines) that flutter gracefully in the water.

Beautiful, but venomous…

Touch one of those spines, and you’ll suffer a very painful (possibly life-threatening) sting.

Hunting lionfish in the Caribbean is necessary to get rid of this invasive species. (And they taste good too!)

Hunting lionfish

Over the years scuba diving in various places around the world, I was taught – “Don’t get too close to the lionfish!”

So now I’m on a dive in the Grenadine Islands in the Caribbean, trying to stay neutrally buoyant 60 feet underwater, as I get close to a cluster of large lionfish.

I want to see our dive guide, Walter, spearing lionfish.

When I first heard Walter say before our dive, “Okay, let’s try and catch some lionfish, shall we?” I was taken aback.

They’re some of the most graceful tropical reef fish. Surely we want to protect the marine life, not kill it?

As it turns out, these particular fish in the Caribbean are one exception.

Invasive lionfish

Lionfish spearing

Native to the coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific oceans, lionfish are an invasive fish species in the Caribbean waters.

They’re a pest,” says Walter.

Prized as aquarium fish, it’s thought lionfish were introduced to the Caribbean (and Atlantic waters) as a result of people emptying an aquarium or two into the sea.

The problem is that lionfish are multiplying rapidly and eating the other native tropical fish, decimating their numbers.

Also, by eating juvenile parrotfish and other grazer fish, lionfish are wiping out the fish that feed on algae and help keep corals alive, so the health of the coral reefs is affected too.

And lionfish have few natural predators. (Sharks don’t like them.)

The lionfish invasion in the Caribbean has unbalanced the eco-system.

It’s gotten so bad there’s even talk of using underwater killer robots to zap them!

Well, we’re going to do our tiny bit to help right this lionfish invasion.

Hunting lionfish is okay because they're an invasive species in the Caribbean

Lionfish are a delicacy

The good news is that lionfish taste delicious. (They’re no longer poisonous within a few minutes after they die, so lionfish are safe to eat when cooked.)

Local fishermen are now diving and fishing for this delicacy.

In the restaurants in Bequia, lionfish cost as much as lobster,” Walter adds.

Scuba diving in the Grenadines

The Grenadines are some of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean!

We start our dive at Chatham Bay off Union Island in the Grenadines.

I’ve been sailing in the area on a luxury 60-foot catamaran.

Sailing in the caribbean

Sharon, a fellow guest on the catamaran, is my dive buddy.

We’ve zipped away from the catamaran on a small Zodiac-style skiff with Walter (who does double duty as our catamaran captain) and Michael (who will stay on the skiff to follow our bubbles that rise up from beneath).

Pssst! Chartering a yacht isn’t just for the rich and famous: Find out everything you need to know about how to charter a yacht

Spearing lionfish

Walter spots our first lionfish pretty soon after we descend down to the reef. But it’s a small thing – only a few inches big. Not much to eat there!

He has more luck with the next one we see.

He uses a very low-tech spear gun, which operates something like a streamlined bow-and-arrow.

He hovers close, aims the tip of the spear gun about two feet away from the fish, and shoots.

Then he has to struggle to get the impaled fish into a net bag strapped to his wrist, without touching the fish or accidentally brushing up against its spines.

How to treat a lionfish sting

You may want to tuck this info away – just in case…

The intense pain you feel from a lionfish sting may make you wish you could die. But don’t worry too much. You most likely won’t.

Being “stung” means one of the lionfish’s venomous spines has punctured your skin. Check if any pieces of the spine have broken off and try to gently remove them with tweezers if you can.

Clean the wound well and apply antibiotic ointment.

The area will probably start to swell. But don’t apply ice – apply heat instead. The venom, which is protein-based, breaks down when heat is applied.

And go see a doctor! There’s a chance the wound could become badly infected and lionfish venom can cause tissue death. (Unfortunately, there’s no lionfish anti-venom.)

Now that you know how seriously bad a lionfish sting is, let’s get back to Walter…

Even though he’s not wearing gloves, it still seems like it’s no contest.

The lionfish just hang in the water, without moving. They only dart away right before the thin, one-foot spear hits them.

For me, it’s hard to see them wriggling away for a minute or so in their death throes after being impaled.

Hunting lionfish in the Caribbean. Here's one our dive guide speared.

Before surfacing, Walter catches a big fish.

I’ve never seen one this big – it’s over a foot long (and a bit ugly in the face too). This one, I know, he’ll be happy with.

All told, he brings up three lionfish.

Eating lionfish

In the late afternoon, we transfer from our catamaran to stay a couple of nights in TRIBU Villas on the island of Mayreau.

Come sunset, seated with our toes in the sand and martinis in hand, we taste Walter’s breaded and deep-fried lionfish catch.

It makes up enough for several chicken-nugget-sized appie portions.

And, yes, the lionfish is tender and light-tasting. Well worth the lionfish hunting!

And I can breathe easy that I’m eating an invasive fish species that should be eaten.

But I confess, I still prefer lobster.

Sail-and-stay in the Grenadines

Tradewinds offers the “Aqua-Terra” experience – a shared charter-yacht stay combined with a shared stay at TRIBU Villas on Mayreau.

Read more about TRIBU Villas: Discover the best Caribbean villas in Barbados, Jamaica and other islands

Where are the Grenadines?

See this link to the location of St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Google Maps.

Enjoy more of the Caribbean!

St. Barts: St. Barts is the chichi island, a playground for the rich and famous. But if you plan carefully, it’s affordable even for luxury lovers with little loot! See our St. Barts travel guide.

Puerto Rico: Colorful buildings. Colorful food. Colorful people. Check out the top things to do in colorful Old San Juan.

St. Martin: Grand Case on French St. Martin is the Caribbean’s culinary capital. Stay at Hotel L’Esplanade, and you can walk to all of Grand Case’s fabulous restaurants.

Our top travel tips and resources

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Tours: For the best local food, walking and other guided tours, plus skip-the-line tickets to attractions, check out Viator (a TripAdvisor company) and GetYourGuide.

Car rental: Renting a car is often one of the best ways to explore off the beaten path. Discover Cars searches car rental companies so you get the best rates.

Travel insurance: SafetyWing is designed for frequent travelers, long-term adventurers and digital nomads. It covers medical expenses, lost checked luggage, trip interruption and more. We also have and recommend Medjet for global air medical transportation and travel security.

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Hunting lionfish

Photo credits: 4, 6, 7 © Janice Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 5 Tradewinds

Janice traveled to the Grenadines courtesy of Tradewinds. But she had no idea she’d be helping with the lionfish invasion solution :-).

About the authors

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George Mucalov are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents. See About.

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Monday 28th of March 2022

Hope that Walter is a citizen of SVG as only locals are allowed to spear.....

Janice and George

Tuesday 29th of March 2022

Good point :-). One always has to check what's legal.

Maybe you can get a license to spearfish? (like you get fishing licenses elsewhere...)


Thursday 8th of April 2021

Lionfish are not poisonous as you stated. The spines on the dorsal, some on the pelvic and some anal fins are venomous. Heat denatures (takes away) the toxin.

They reproduce at appx 15,000 eggs every 2 weeks when fully mature. Culling them and doing your bit from reef to plate is more sustainable than eating lobster.

Janice and George

Friday 9th of April 2021

Thanks for this additional information! They're fertile little creatures, aren't they!

It was interesting for us to learn that, though beautiful, lionfish are deadly to the Caribbean environment... We'll order more lionfish at a restaurant next time we're in the Caribbean :-).

Walt D.

Friday 2nd of August 2019

Hi Guys! I am the maker of a "travel size" pole spear for invasive lionfish called the Lionator, and I also write a periodic report every few weeks for the organization called Lionfish University on lionfish culling rules and regulations in various Caribbean places. Anyway, I enjoyed reading your lionfish hunting report and would love to add a few thoughts. Since lionfish have no natural predators in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, you can slowly swim up to them and get your spear tip within inches of them, preferably a head shot... (If you miss or they wiggle off, then yes they will hide). Typically hunters/cullers use a 3 tine barbed paralyzer tip for lionfish. Oh, and because of their nasty spines, most hunters use a hard containment device such as the "Zookeeper" or even something homemade from a large water jug. Groupers, nurse sharks and green moray eels will eat injured lionfish but such predation is extremely rare. Locals in several Caribbean places were feeding them to these fish, but that is now discouraged as the nurse sharks in particular, will bump into you looking for a handout! It is only the spines on the fish that are "venomous." The flesh is not affected at any time and most of us just filet each side as you would any other fish. You can wear a glove to be safer and even trim off those spines before-hand. I give away scissors at tournaments actually, and call them Lionator fin snips :-). You must be careful though because those snipped off spines can still sting you! At one research camp I was at, there was a pit in the brush to dump them in. As well, I know for a fact that lionfish are not yet on the Pacific side of Central America, thank goodness! It's important people know about the lionfish invasion. I think we're making a bit of a difference in the fight against the invasion. Thanks!

Janice and George

Saturday 10th of August 2019

Hi Walt, Thanks so much for the detailed info! Most people probably have no idea about the lionfish problem (we didn't know). It sounds like you've done a lot to help -- hopefully you've enjoyed your trips to Central America and the Caribbean :-). Next time we go, we promise to order lionfish for dinner (not lobster)!