Unless you have just arrived on this planet you are aware that the invasive species Lionfish has established, and in many cases has overwhelmed, the waters along the eastern seaboard of the United States, the entire Caribbean, south along the eastern shores of South America past Brazil, and now the Mediterranean Sea. If not; Welcome, we call this place Earth.
These beautiful feathery fish are literally a mouth and stomach covered in venomous spines. They are wreaking havoc among the native fish populations as they suck in prey up to half their own length, and stuff it in stomachs that can expand to 30 times their normal size. Small and juvenile fish not recognizing this Indonesian import as a predator, fall easy victim to the Lionfish, which can remove up to 90% of the fish population on a coral reef.
Lionfish are tasty, I like them fried, or smoked. The large reef predators like the snappers, groupers, moray eels, Queen Triggerfish, and sharks find them tasty also, but the Lionfish are covered in self-defensive venomous spines making them a tough snack to get. The Lionfish sports 18 spines sticking out at various angles, mostly along its back dorsal fin which can get up to four inches long and as sharp as a surgeon’s needle.
Sheathed in a feathery covering these long needle sharp translucent spines have longitudinal grooves filled with pain inducing venom. As the point of the spine enters the victim the feathery sheathing is pushed back depositing venom in the resulting wound.
WARNING!!! – From Smithsonian.com:
Warning! Lionfish spines deliver a venomous sting that can last for days and cause extreme pain. Also sweating, respiratory distress and even paralysis. Lionfish venom can sting you even after the fish is dead. The venom is a neurotoxin. If stung, seek medical attention immediately.
This is the official version, and no doubt there are those who are hyper-sensitive to the venom, however here on the street (in the ocean) where we hunt Lionfish for protein, fun, and sport, we have yet to experience anything close to a life threatening exposure, but there is no lack of Lionfish sting stories, so I’ll tell you mine.
Five years ago or so we were starting to battle the beginning of the invasion. The Roatan Marine Park had opened the area to spearfishing of only this species in this otherwise protected area, and the hunt was on! Whilst diving at about 50 feet deep along the coral reef I speared a feisty little medium sized version of Pterois volitans, and while I maneuvered it into the five gallon bucket we were using at the time for a catch holder, I felt a sting or poke about half as painful as a bee sting on my left index finger. Examining the injury, (I thought there might be a sharp spot on the bucket) I noticed there was a small green dot on my finger at the source of the pain, which rubbing would not remove. Squeezing it caused a small thread of green to emerge from the dot, and disappear into the water. I immediately came to the logical conclusion that I had just been stung by a Lionfish, and their venom is green!
BRIEF SUBJECT CHANGE
As you descend in water, the sunlight with all the hues of the rainbow which allow us to see vibrant colors on the surface begins to be filtered out by the density of the water. The red spectrum being composed of longer and less energetic wave lengths, gets filtered out first, changing red items to browns and grays. Having watched the movie “Jaws” we all know that blood in sea water is very red, but for some reason at around fifty feet deep, it looks green as grass! It is something to see, but be advised; see it in small samplings.
Back to our narrative….
OK. So, it was blood. I had been stung, but not really hard, it was incidental, and I didn’t think I was close enough for it to happen, and it probably wouldn’t amount to much. WRONG. With this tiny puncture the pain began to increase, and slowly but surely, it amounted to “very much”. This is an intense and throbbing pain that feels exactly like laying your finger on a board, and hitting the tip of it with a hammer. I’m talking full on, black finger nail with blood oozing out the edges, pain that is a solid nine on the “I’m gonna wet my pants”-10 scale. (How I know this is another story).
The pain is incessant, and unrelenting for a couple of hours when it becomes cruel, and will fade for just a bit giving hope of relief, to come rolling back with throbbing intensity. This ordeal lasts about four hours before gradually subsiding, and leaving you with a small hole for your troubles. Not so fast dear Lionfish killer, the next day brings phase two of the sting scenario where you awake to find the area around the sting swollen and puffy. For me, being stung on the fingertip it caused the whole finger to swell and be unbend-able for a couple of days. Not painful, but inconvenient, and somewhat amusing as the swelling acts as edema, and when you press it with your finger you leave a temporary dent in the skin. It’s the small amusements that are best.
The official treatment for Lionfish stings is Hot Water. Immersing the injured appendage and soaking it in hot water breaks down the proteins of the lionfish’s venom supposedly reducing the pain and severity of the symptoms. 110 to 115 degrees F (Not Celsius!) is the recommended temperature for this treatment, however in the heat of the moment we have witnessed injured divers, frantic for relief, use water that is too hot and add second degree burns to their immediate problems. Please remember that water temperatures over 120 degrees F (49 degrees C) are considered a hazard, with higher temperatures causing serious second, and possibly third-degree scald burns upon contact with skin.
Being a slow learner, I’ve managed to be stung by Lionfish a half a dozen times, but in my defense it is easy to do, especially when cleaning them. They are very sharp on the corners, and just because they are dead doesn’t mean they can’t exact their revenge. The second time I was stung, it was the same scenario as above; afternoon ruined, strange interpretive dance, improvisational swearing, and comical swelling. The third time I got stung, I was really considering hanging up my spear, when after a half hour the pain vanished! Since then (the last few times) the venom aspect of the lionfish sting hasn’t been a problem at all. However, it still leaves a hole that leaks.
The legendary Lionfish spines have found a new venue of interaction with this planet’s most profuse bipedal species. Local artisan Carolina has been creating jewelry from the fins of the Lionfish donated by the local enraptured hunters. Each fin is unique in its coloring and patterns, making them a wonderful medium for her creativity, and one of a kind pieces that are sought after souvenirs.
Fear not! They are safe for personal ornamentation.