Lionfish Invade the Caribbean

Ridlon’s Note: Where a cause can be determined, the introduction of exotic or non native species has been responsible for the extinction of more species in the last two centuries than even habitat loss. Looking at this, the lionfish pose a significant threat to Caribbean ecosystems. I don’t believe the removal of this species would be “an uphill fight,” just ask the Stellar’s Sea Cow or the American Bison. What we lack is political will and economic incentive.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – A maroon-striped marauder with venomous spikes is rapidly multiplying in the Caribbean‘s warm waters and even off the East Coast — swallowing native species, stinging divers and generally wreaking havoc on an ecologically delicate region.

The lionfish, a tropical native of the Indian and Pacific oceans that probably escaped from a Florida fish tank, is showing up everywhere — from the coasts of Cuba and Hispaniola to Little Cayman’s pristine Bloody Bay Wall, one of the region’s prime destinations for divers. Wherever it appears, the adaptable predator corners fish and crustaceans up to half its size with its billowy fins and sucks them down in one violent gulp. Research teams observed one lionfish eating 20 small fish in less than 30 minutes.

“This may very well become the most devastating marine invasion in history,” said Mark Hixon, an Oregon State University marine ecology expert who compared lionfish to a plague of locusts. “There is probably no way to stop the invasion completely.” Similar invasions have happened repeatedly in fresh water,” Hixon said. “But we’ve not seen such a large predatory invasion in the ocean before.”

The lionfish so far has been concentrated in the Bahamas, where marine biologists are seeing it in every habitat: in shallow and deep reefs, off piers and beaches, and perhaps most worrisome, in mangrove thickets that are vital habitats for baby fish. Some spots in the Bahamian archipelago between New Providence and the Berry Islands are reporting a tenfold increase in lionfish just during the last year. Northern Caribbean islands have sounded the alarm, encouraging fishermen to capture lionfish and divers to report them for eradication. The invasion would be “devastating” to fisheries and recreational diving if it reached Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to Eugenio Pineiro-Soler of the Caribbean Fishery Management Council.

Researchers believe lionfish were introduced into the Atlantic in 1992, when Hurricane Andrew shattered a private aquarium and six of them spilled into Miami‘s Biscayne Bay, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Biologists think the fish released floating sacs of eggs that rode the Gulf Stream north along the U.S. coast, leading to colonization of deep reefs off North Carolina and Bermuda. Lionfish have even been spotted as far north as Rhode Island in summer months, NOAA said. So researchers are scrambling to figure out what will eat the menacing beauties in their new Caribbean home, experimenting with predators such as sharks, moray eels — and even humans. Adventurous eaters describe the taste of lionfish fillets as resembling halibut. But so far, they are a tough sell. Hungry sharks typically veer abruptly when researchers try to hand-feed them a lionfish.

Containing the spread of the lionfish is an uphill fight. As lionfish colonize more territory in the Caribbean, they feed on grazing fish that keep seaweed from overwhelming coral reefs already buffeted by climate change, pollution and other environmental pressures.

Dehart said: “If we start losing these smaller reef fish as food to the lionfish … we could be in a whirlwind for bad things coming to the reef ecosystem.”

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