By: Tyson Bottenus, At-Large Ambassador for Sailors for the Sea
Can humans stop the lionfish invasion?
Have you ever seen a lionfish?
If you have, and you were in the Atlantic Ocean, you have witnessed one of the fastest spreading invasive species problems in the ocean. With eighteen spines protruding off their body, lionfish appear beautiful and exotic but these pervasive creatures have a voracious appetite and those venomous spines can cause serious pain. Both attributes make them dangerous to coral reefs and to the species that inhabit them. Their appetite allows them to decimate the population of other reef fish and the venom stored in the tips of their needle-like dorsal fins makes them difficult for humans to hunt. In the Atlantic Ocean, where they have no natural predators, they live up to their full potential to wreak havoc.
If you read our previous article, the Lionfish Invasion, you’ll know that lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific region. So how did they travel to the other side of the world? The exact story is unclear but genetic testing has confirmed that Atlantic lionfish descended from about 10 original lionfish that were released in south Florida in the early 1990s. Since then, they have been found up and down the Northeast seaboard and as far south as South America.
Since we published this story in 2011, lionfish have continued to spread and recently have been found as far away as the Mediterranean Ocean. But increased awareness of the problem has lead many Caribbean islands to promote competitions to catch and kill as many lionfish as possible. Some forward thinking restaurants have even started offering lionfish on their menus.
Beautiful Fish or Dangerous Demon?
When you first look at a lionfish, it’s hard to imagine them as horrific threats to coral reef health. Aesthetically speaking, they are simply majestic-looking creatures. But beauty aside, there are many factors that explain how they were able to quickly expand their population and why humans are stepping up to undo our own mistake.
Five reasons lionfish cause so much trouble:
1. Lionfish eat. They eat a lot. Known to prey on over 70 different species, lionfish are particularly adept at eating juvenile fish, like parrotfish, who consume algae that grows on coral reefs. These fish play an important role in keeping reefs healthy, and without them, entire coral reefs suffer.
2. Like underwater rats, lionfish can live pretty much anywhere. Some have even been found at depths up to 300 meters. This kind of dynamic habitat range makes studying lionfish extremely difficult for marine biologists.
3. Since they aren't recognized by their prey in the Atlantic (like they are in the Indian and Pacific Ocean), they have become a very effective predator. Additionally, their slow movement and seaweed-like appearance acts as a natural camouflage.
4. It's estimated that lionfish have been able to populate a million square miles of ocean in 10 years. They become sexually mature in their first year and females spawn 4,000 to 30,000 eggs every few days or so.
5. Lionfish like to make their homes in the natural crevices of coral reefs. They don’t school and aren’t easily attracted by bait. The only way to catch them is through spearfishing, one at a time, reef by reef. Gathering enough to sell to a restaurant or market can be a challenge. However as the interest in eating them grows, fisherman are able to dedicate more time to catching them.
As governments realize the potential harm posed by lionfish to coral reefs, many individuals, governments and nonprofits have come up with creative strategies in an attempt to regulate the further spread of the species.