Blog by Claudia Farren
FWF Communications Consultant
The lionfish is a popular saltwater aquarium fish with distinctive maroon (or brown) and white stripes, fleshy tentacles above the eyes and below the mouth, and an imposing fan of prickly venomous spines. Having no teeth, lionfish swallow their prey whole. It’s been said their stomach can expand up to thirty times. In warm climates like the Caribbean, they reproduce frequently – every four days -- year-round.
It is no surprise to Florida saltwater fishermen, divers
and many conservationists that the lionfish has quickly become a top predator
in many coral reef environments and is continuing to spread throughout the
Western Atlantic, Bahamas, Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. They can be found
as far north as New York state in the summer, as far south as Venezuela, and as
far west as Louisiana. They have formed fast growing colonies almost everywhere
they have expanded their territory. Unfortunately, additional aquatic
environments may also be affected.
In an article published online in June 2011, Recent invasion of a Florida estuarine
system by lionfish, Florida International University researchers documented
the first lionfish invasion of an estuary by capturing 211 lionfish in the
Loxahatchee River between August 2010 and April 2011. Several of the smallest
fish were found more than 3 miles upstream from the Jupiter Inlet suggesting
that small juveniles may settle well into estuarine systems. In a curious
finding, all of the fish were found around man-made structures along the river
bank — docks, sea walls, submerged debris; none were found in natural shoreline habitats such as seagrass beds, sand bottom and mangroves.
One disturbing conclusion by the FIU team: “On coral reefs, invasive lionfish have been shown to reduce recruitment of native fishes by nearly 80% over a 5 wk period (Albins & Hixon 2008); similar predation rates in estuaries could have major, yet undocumented, effects, particularly for species that rely on estuarine systems as nursery habitat. The continued presence of lionfish in estuarine nursery habitats may threaten the early life
history stages of a number of commercially, recreationally, and ecologically
valuable fish species . . . “
Look, but don't touch! Although not fatal to humans, the dorsal, anal, and pelvic spines of lionfish can deliver a painful sting, as well as cause headache, vomiting, and respiratory distress. If you are stung by a lionfish, seek medical attention immediately. Learn protective procedures at a local workshop or derby. Anyone not properly equipped should not handle the fish. If caught on a rod and reel, hold the lionfish over a cooler or bucket and cut the line. (Photo credit: Stephen Vives)
Lionfish are native to coral reefs in the South Pacific and Indian oceans and are not known to have any native predators or parasites. They are often described as gluttonous feeders and voracious predators, feeding on some of society’s most economically-important species like small reef fish, snapper, grouper and shrimp. For this reason conservationists, fishing groups, divers and others have banded together
to try to slow down this onslaught. Bounties, fish derbies and development as a
food source have all been attempted to try to stem the spread of lionfish
Belize had a bounty program until it ran out of money, and many fish derbies have been held in Florida and the Caribbean. Last year the Palm Beach Lionfish Derby brought in 700 lionfish; a tournament in Abaco, Bahamas brought in close to 3,000 in one day; and the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) together with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary had three lionfish derbies that removed 1,518 lionfish from the Keys. These derbies are not only fun, but contribute to scientific research; help to
raise awareness among fishermen and diving enthusiasts; and teach safe handling
and collection practices. Some even include cooking classes.
Attempts are also being made to develop local food markets. Lionfish taste similar to snapper, are high in Omega 3s and lionfish cookbooks are now available. Bermuda has even developed the slogan “Eat `em to Beat `em”.
Scientists hope that over time predators will learn to
consume lionfish and their population will level off. Until then, you can help
by educating yourself about these creatures, by attending a derby, or just by
asking your local seafood restaurant to serve lionfish on their menu.
For more information on lionfish, safe handling
practices, derbies in Florida and the Bahamas, and REEF workshops: http://www.reef.org/programs/exotic/lionfish
Buy the Lionfish Cookbook at http://www.reef.org/catalog/cookbook
Lionfish Biology Fact Sheet: http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/education/stories/lionfish/factsheet.html
FIU Document: http://www2.fiu.edu/~laymanc/PDFs/Jud%20et%20al.%202011%20Estuarine%20Lionfish.pdf
To watch a portion of the documentary Lionfish, the Beautiful Outlaw, by Paul
Cater Deaton: http://www.paulcaterdeaton.com/music-28.html
To see the full program check your local PBS station listings.
Alien Invaders: http://video.wpbt2.org/video/1979166369
Major funding provided by the Batchelor Foundation.