Passion drives Marathon resident Rachel Bowman, a dedicated pole spear huntress who’s the Florida Keys’ only female commercial lionfish fisherman. She spears several thousand lionfish each year, removing as many of the voracious invaders from Keys waters as she can.

Lionfish underwater

Predatory lionfish are an invasive species with an exotic appearance — and a light, appealing taste.

That makes her the envy of other recreational divers — and her commitment to the cause is unshakeable.

A licensed boat captain, Rachel moved to the Keys 17 years ago from Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. She and fellow divers hunt off her vessel Britney Spears, aptly emblazoned with a pole spear–clasping mermaid, in waters ranging from 80 feet to 150 feet deep along reefs and shipwrecks.

Most experts believe lionfish, popular Indo-Pacific aquarium fish, were first released in Florida’s Atlantic Ocean waters during the 1980s. Now, with no natural reef predators, they prey on invertebrates and over 70 species of domestic fish.

Today Rachel and other conservationists employ population-control tactics instead of seeking complete removal of the mass-breeding lionfish, since the rate of reproduction far exceeds eradication efforts.

Lionfish reportedly can live up to 15 years. They can grow to nearly 20 inches in length and over 3 pounds in weight, eating smaller fish within 2 inches of their own size.

“With every lionfish I spear, I’m saving the juvenile fish around it and I’m preventing that lion from breeding,” Rachel explained.

Delicate and delicious, the light white meat of the lionfish tastes much like snapper or hogfish. So it’s not surprising that culinary demand for it is increasing.

Rachel Bowman lionfish hunter

Rachel captures thousands of pounds of lionfish annually and contributes significantly to the “conservation through consumption” movement. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Bowman)

Seafood markets (most notably the nationwide chain of Whole Foods Markets) buy whole fish from Rachel and other commercial fishermen who can capture up to 400 pounds a day of lionfish — an acceptable bycatch species in their lobster traps.

Hurtful spines containing venom (not poison) are removed during preparation for cooking. The meat is harmless and considered a healthy choice since it’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Lionfish can be broiled, baked, sautéed, fried, bacon-wrapped, topped with a variety of sauces, made into a ceviche appetizer or even served as a sashimi (sliced fish) or nigiri sushi roll.

“When you order lionfish off the menu in a restaurant, you’re also not ordering snapper or hogfish or grouper — so you’re taking a little bit of pressure off those species, whose populations are already being affected by lionfish,” said Rachel.

As well as being served in restaurants around the Keys, lionfish can also be prepared at home.

The Key Largo–based Reef Environmental Education Foundation, widely recognized as a leading authority in lionfish research, has adopted an “eat them to beat them” mantra. The organization has even released “The Lionfish Cookbook,” featuring more than 60 appetizer and entrée recipes for preparing the mild-flavored fish.

Authored by REEF founder Lad Akins and personal chef Tricia Ferguson, the cookbook also offers background information about lionfish biology and ecology, details on the species’ impacts, and tips on how to effectively and safely collect and handle lionfish.

Whether you’re a diver or not, you can make a real difference by ordering the fish at Keys restaurants, helping to decrease lionfish populations and minimize their impacts. And after sampling the new delicacy in the island chain, order the cookbook, request lionfish at your market at home, and try a few recipes.

By joining Rachel Bowman in the “control through consumption” movement, you’ll enjoy flavorful and healthful meals while benefiting the Keys’ underwater world.