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Dangerous Beauty – The Ongoing Threat of Invasive Lionfish Along the East Coast

Caught in the Virgin IslandsHow can something be so beautiful and yet so dangerous and destructive? Invasive lionfish are making headlines again, continuing their viral spread in the Atlantic and decimating native species as they explode in population. Lionfish are quickly becoming the poster species for the horrible things that can happen when a non-native species is introduced to a new region or habitat, left without predators to keep populations in check.

This isn’t a new story, just a continuing saga conveying the sad consequences of accidental or intentional introduction of non-native species. The story is believed to have begun sometime in the 80’s with lionfish being sighted between Florida and the Caribbean. Within 15-20 years the population exploded and at this point any hope of stopping the invasion has all but fizzled.  No one will ever know how they were introduced or where to place the blame. Some believe careless aquarists are at fault, releasing the fish into waterways if they became to large or otherwise unable to be kept. One popular theory is that the fish made their way into the Atlantic after a coastal hurricane destroyed a home or homes with aquariums that contained the Indo-Pacific natives, which miraculously found their way safely into east coast waters. Others believe it’s possible that juvenile or larval lions hitched a ride in ship ballast waters as other species have before, finding themselves in a new world when the waters were pumped out. Regardless, lions are here and here to stay, with only we humans as their predators.

You may have heard of other invasive species like snakeheads, grass carp, or zebra mussels. While these all present horrific problems in areas they’ve established in, the case of the lionfish is somewhat unique. These fish are voracious predators, devouring their fill of juvenile fish and crustaceans. Would-be predators that are native to the Caribbean and surrounding waters are intimidated by these new arrivals. Unsure how to attack and eat the frilly fish, they generally give up and move on to reliable prey. Their spread is basically unimpeded, being in open water. They are not limited to a pond or lake, they are only restricted by water temps and food availability, and they’re proving to be more resilient than expected. Warm currents of the Gulf Stream have carried the alien fish as far south as Venezuela and as far north as Long Island, NY, where they are still sighted despite cold temps. The population has spread and established like wildfire, and they’re here to stay.

While I haven’t seen these fish in open water myself, it’s disturbing how the ethereal fish hover and congregate as seen in recent news videos. This particular video isn’t a story covering the lionfish invasion, but I was amazed at the numbers of the fish you could see in the footage, as they hunt on and around the fighter plane wreckage. Your eye may catch one as the frames pass, but once you see one you begin to notice that it’s never just one in the scene. You see another, then another, then another until quick counts bring double digit numbers of the silent hunters stalking the area. This scene plays out on countless other small reefs, rocky outcrops and even the open sandy seafloor.

Caught in the Virgin Islands
So if they can’t be eradicated, what can be done? Despite the seemingly hopeless situation, some island nations have seen localized success in controlling these burgeoning populations encouraging open season on lions for spearfishers and anglers. Advocates also encourage locals and fishermen to dine on the fish. Popular restaurants sometimes serve their delicate, mild, flaky fillets as featured plates! You can even prepare them at home…sample recipes from The Lionfish Cookbook. Various organizations are continually working to track the population to determine if and how fast lionfish numbers are growing. This is not an easy task considering the geography, range and depth where they roam. Researchers are also trying to predict the lionfish’s future in the Atlantic and their long-term effects on the ecosystem.

Public education programs in the region are spreading the word, imploring everyone to do their part. Authorities ask the public to alert them to the presence of lionfish and report sightings. Efforts are also being made to make locals and tourists alike aware of the dangers presented by lionfish including safe handling and treatments if stung. Awareness is also being raised about invasive species (not a strange concept in Florida) and the importance of containing and handling non-native plants and animals responsibly to prevent future introductions, intentional or not.  There are calls for regulations to control the introduction non-native species, including marine fish, freshwater fish and reptiles that can easily become established in tropical regions. Some areas enforce a strict ban on the importation of live fish, but without widespread adaptations of such regulations species may disperse to these places once they are introduced into non-native waters, just as lions have spread.

We’ll continue to follow and update you on the lionfish invasion as it continues to unfold along the East Coast. If you have experiences to share involving lions, we’d love to see your comments.

 

 

Lionfish image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Nick Hobgood

2 comments

  1. avatar

    Do you think that one person could have let 1 fish go and somehow it bred?.. I can’t think of how these fish could breed so fast with someone introducing them into a new habitat like this.. Now you got me thinking

  2. avatar

    I had no idea people actually cook lionfish. Sounds a little too exotic for my taste!

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