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All in the family: beautiful, deadly and delicious

Aug 15, 2007
From Ocean Navigator #139 July/August 2004

From Ocean Navigator #139 July/August 2004

Mariners have multiple reasons for training their eyes to see scorpionfish (family Scorpaenidae). The family includes what is likely the most venomous fish in the world, the stonefish (Synanceia verrucosa), and many other members with venomous spines, representing a potential hazard to waders, divers, and those fishing with hook and line. Despite this characteristic, many species, including stonefish, have delicious, firm white flesh prized by those in the know. Lastly, the lionfish and turkeyfish clan (genera Pterois and Dendrochirus) are among the most dazzling and sought-after underwater sights for snorkelers and divers in the tropical Indo-Pacific region, not to be missed even if getting spiked by the wrong fin could be fatal.

Spotted scorpionfish (Scorpaena plumieri) lying in ambush near Alligator Reef, Florida Keys. This species occurs along the eastern seaboard of the United States, south to Brazil, and also in the eastern Pacific. It possesses poisonous spines capable of inflicting painful, nonfatal wounds.
   Image Credit: Scott Bannerot

Spotting the more cryptic members of the scorpionfish family is like taking a color vision test or gazing at multidimensional art that some people can visualize and others miss. One important key to detecting well-camouflaged wildlife is development of a search image, a mental imprint of a visual mosaic typifying habitat, color, profile and any other important information that might give away the presence of the species you wish to observe.

Stonefish generally do not exceed 12 to 14 inches in length. They lie motionless in sand or reef rubble areas in the tropical and subtropical Indo-Pacific. They may partially bury themselves, with only eyes and a few dorsal spines protruding out of the sand, waiting to ambush some unwitting small prey that wanders by. Fortunately, they also like to lie under ledges and partially under rocks, undoubtedly reducing the number of incidents of waders stepping on them. The stout spines easily penetrate gloves and even thick rubber soles, and the venom that flows out of the dorsal spines and into the wound can kill you. Heavy footwear, keeping your eyes peeled for a subtle search image generally similar to the photo of the spotted scorpionfish (Scorpaena plumieri), and avoiding blind hand thrusts for lobsters and other seafood while wading and diving in the shallows can reduce the risk of an encounter.

Pacific islanders in some areas avidly spear or jig stonefish for their high-quality meat. Commercial and recreational fishermen actively seek other family members in both Pacific and Atlantic waters for their food value. We’ve yet to encounter a stonefish knowingly in our Pacific travels, although we have seen a number of the less ominous scorpionfishes, mostly resting in the dim recesses of ledges and caves, while diving in both the Caribbean and Indo-Pacific regions.

Lionfish and turkeyfish, highly valued for display in marine aquariums, are another story. For those who first became familiar with reef fishes in the western Atlantic and Caribbean, like us and many other eastern North American and European voyagers, seeing these fish is one of many new thrills beckoning on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. There’s nothing subtle about them — unlike stonefish and other sneaky family members, they’re downright flashy and bold. My favorite is the biggest (to fully 15 inches) and most widely distributed in the Indo-Pacific, Pterois volitans.

We once anchored in the clear shallows of the eastern-side lagoon of Moorea, Society Islands, for a week, snorkeling every afternoon to enjoy the spectacle of up to a dozen of these burly lionfish coming out to feed in the vicinity of our 41-foot sloop, Élan. Splotched dorsal plumes soared vertically, and immense pectoral “wings” flared to either side of the stocky, brilliant-white and rusty-orange-banded bodies as these fish emerged unafraid in the fading light of late afternoon from holes, pockets, crevices and beneath coral heads. They suspended motionless in midwater or glided confidently and majestically over the reef as twilight descended. If we approached too closely, the venomous dorsal and pectoral spines stiffened, and the lionfish often tilted slightly head down to point the dorsal daggers in our direction. (As the Gary Larson cartoon quipped, this is one of nature’s subtle ways of saying, “Don’t touch!”)

The scorpionfish family boasts more than 375 species ranging worldwide from the tropics to cool temperate seas, and most occur near shore. Sailors are likely to meet family members in one way or another during the course of their travels. Since the results of such encounters might range from a thrilling fish-watching experience, a delicious meal or a painful death, seafarers with knowledge about this group of fishes can reap rich rewards.

Stonefish
generally
do
not
exceed
12
to
14
inches
in
length.
They
lie
motionless
in
sand
or
reef
rubble
areas
in
the
tropical
and
subtropical
Indo-Pacific.
They
may
partially
bury
themselves,
with
only
eyes
and
a
few
dorsal
spines
protruding
out
of
the
sand,
waiting
to
ambush
some
unwitting
small
prey
that
wanders
by.
Fortunately,
they
also
like
to
lie
under
ledges
and
partially
under
rocks,
undoubtedly
reducing
the
number
of
incidents
of
waders
stepping
on
them.
The
stout
spines
easily
penetrate
gloves
and
even thick rubber soles, and the venom that flows out of the dorsal spines and into the wound can kill you. Heavy footwear, keeping your eyes peeled for a subtle search image generally similar to the photo of the spotted scorpionfish (Scorpaena plumieri), and avoiding blind hand thrusts for lobsters and other seafood while wading and diving in the shallows can reduce the risk of an encounter.

Pacific islanders in some areas avidly spear or jig stonefish for their high-quality meat. Commercial and recreational fishermen actively seek other family members in both Pacific and Atlantic waters for their food value. We've yet to encounter a stonefish knowingly in our Pacific travels, although we have seen a number of the less ominous scorpionfishes, mostly resting in the dim recesses of ledges and caves, while diving in both the Caribbean and Indo-Pacific regions.

Lionfish and turkeyfish, highly valued for display in marine aquariums, are another story. For those who first became familiar with reef fishes in the western Atlantic and Caribbean, like us and many other eastern North American and European voyagers, seeing these fish is one of many new thrills beckoning on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. There's nothing subtle about them — unlike stonefish and other sneaky family members, they're downright flashy and bold. My favorite is the biggest (to fully 15 inches) and most widely distributed in the Indo-Pacific, Pterois volitans.

We once anchored in the clear shallows of the eastern-side lagoon of Moorea, Society Islands, for a week, snorkeling every afternoon to enjoy the spectacle of up to a dozen of these burly lionfish coming out to feed in the vicinity of our 41-foot sloop, élan. Splotched dorsal plumes soared vertically, and immense pectoral "wings" flared to either side of the stocky, brilliant-white and rusty-orange-banded bodies as these fish emerged unafraid in the fading light of late afternoon from holes, pockets, crevices and beneath coral heads. They suspended motionless in midwater or glided confidently and majestically over the reef as twilight descended. If we approached too closely, the venomous dorsal and pectoral spines stiffened, and the lionfish often tilted slightly head down to point the dorsal daggers in our direction. (As the Gary Larson cartoon quipped, this is one of nature's subtle ways of saying, "Don't touch!")

The scorpionfish family boasts more than 375 species ranging worldwide from the tropics to cool temperate seas, and most occur near shore. Sailors are likely to meet family members in one way or another during the course of their travels. Since the results of such encounters might range from a thrilling fish-watching experience, a delicious meal or a painful death, seafarers with knowledge about this group of fishes can reap rich rewards.

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