LIONFISH: THE VENOMOUS PREDATORS INVADING CORAL REEFS
Join us in learning about lionfish’s venom, the ecological threat of the predators and the common myths about their invasion in the Caribbean, Western Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico
Words: Aleksandra Georgieva
Photography: Danielle Bouchard
27 June 2020
The lionfish is native to the Indo-Pacific (the Indian and South Pacific Oceans) including the Red Sea. The invasive species made it to the Caribbean, the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. They inhabit a large range between southern Japan, southern Korea, western Australia and Malaysia. Lionfish is now common in the waters surrounding French Polynesia alongside UK’s Pitcairn Islands in the east and the Kermadec Islands of New Zealand.
The top predator competes for marine space and food causing harm to reef ecosystems. Lionfish are unique for their long fins, distinctive maroon colour, vivid stripes and venomous dorsal spines. Their rapid invasion in coastal waters and in artificial reefs impose harm on reef ecosystems, since the carnivorous fish competes for space and food with native stocks.
Their population is on the rise, expanding in range as well. In a year the female release about two million eggs. Alongside reproducing all year long, lionfish have no predators other than humans. All this generates fears among scientists over the potential that lionfish hunts helpful species, such as the algae-eating parrotfish, which prevents seaweed from taking over reefs.
An Invasive Species
Across many coral reef environments in the Atlantic, lionfish have turned into a top predator. They consume over 50 fish species, including some that are essential in ecological and environmental aspect. A 2015 mapping expedition in the Caribbean reported 135 lionfish over twenty-six dives at a depth up to 768 feet. The nocturnal hunters inhabit warm waters around the tropics. The species was first spotted in 1985 near Dania in South Florida, but their first official documentation wasn’t until the early 2000s. Over time, ocean currents guided the invasion of lionfish to its current reach and severity. The species gathered economic importance in the aquarium trade, especially in the U.S.
A unique characteristic of these ocean creatures is their spine, which can deliver a venomous sting. A deadly poison is carried in 18 venomous feathery spines located along their sides and backs. Once the spine punctures the skin, the venom can last for days causing sweating, respiratory diseases, extreme pain, paralysis and potential deadly complications as a result of an allergic reaction followed by an anaphylactic shock. Although lionfish produce a toxin harmful to other organisms, they are not poisonous. These predators are venomous species, meaning that their neurotoxic venom gets injected into the skin rather than getting absorbed or ingested by the victim. In other words, if you stay clear of their spine, you’d be okay.
The Myth of Eating Lionfish
There is a common misconception that lionfish cannot be eaten. Since the species is venomous, and not poisonous, consuming lionfish meat causes no harm. The risk of envenomation disappears once you dispose of the spines. Lionfish can be cooked in various ways and the tender meat tastes flavorsome, melting in your mouth. The white fish is best cooked rare, served with heavy seasoning and creamy sauces that bring out its sweetness. The meat tastes buttery and moist, like a cross between lobster and a shrimp. Restaurants across the U.S. and the Caribbean often offer lionfish. This way locals to tropical areas not only invite guests to try something different, but they also educate visitors about the ecological impact of the predatory species over the fine balance of marine ecosystems.
The Ecological Threat
Invasive lionfish across the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico are destroying reefs and native fish stocks. When food is plentiful, lionfish eat constantly. Reposing on reef structures, they have unique hunting techniques and consume their prey at a rapid rate. Since they don’t have natural predators, lionfish easily dominate coral reefs, consuming a lot of the young fish. They are not picky, but some of their favorites include snappers, groupers, crustaceans and small reef varieties. The spiny invaders blow water before herding the prey with their fins and swallowing in a single bite. Their lifespan in the wild stretches between ten and fifteen years.
One of the biggest issues with lionfish is their escalating reproduction, which harms the fishing industries. These super predators are invasive species and creating commercial markets for lionfish meat is vital to control the spread. Millions of fish populations are decimated by these predators, which can lead to the extinction of native marine animals and plants in their competition for limited resources. Any marine ecosystem can be seriously harmed by a massive invasion of non-indigenous species. Lionfish tend to avoid hook and line bait as well, imposing a real environmental threat to marine ecosystems.
LIONFISH: THREAT OF INVASION: Lionfish is venomous not poisonous, therefore it can be eaten safely once the spine is removed. Deadly poison is carried in 18 venomous feathery spines located along the nocturnal hunters' sides and backs. The invasive species is an ecological threat across the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico where lionfish are destroying coral reefs and native fish stocks.
Lionfish and Commercialism
Lionfish predation of commercially important marine species puts pressure on local fisheries that rely on traditional fishing methods. Scuba divers report that the creatures’ eating habits have already caused a noticeable decrease in juvenile populations of species such as seahorses, octopuses and lobsters. Taking a step away from the ocean reveals a bigger picture of the lionfish’s impact on commercialism. Reef declines create the need for seeking new diving sites and fishing centers in different destinations across the world. In turn, this will lead to the building of new restaurants, hotels and recreational complexes. When the reef health is so dramatically affected, it is essential that more travellers learn about the consequences of lionfish invasion. Cozumel, Mexico is another region where the same problem occurred in recent years. The most reliable way to control lionfish population and ensure the survival of native species is direct actions from fishermen hunters.
Solutions to Lionfish Threats
While lionfish’s expertise may be invading non-native ranges of tropical waters, the locals in these regions have created some pretty efficient ingenious solutions to the economic and ecological threats. Regular dive operations remove these spiny invaders from the sea, hence tourists rarely spot the species in popular diving sites. Another creative way to bring awareness and clean the reefs are fishing competitions, which gain popularity with award prizes for smallest, largest and most lionfish captured.
Every year environmental groups in Florida for two-day events, where they harvest over 15,000 lionfish from the local waters for chefs, who demonstrate how to dispose of the venomous spines and how to cook the meat. The Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) managed to remove over 10,231 lionfish between 2009 and 2012. In addition, enthusiasts continue to develop effective tools for lionfish capture. Spearfishing is another efficient hunting practice where divers head underwater with specifically designed equipment to clear reef structures off of lionfish. While it is rather difficult to become fully educated on the spiny predators, it is important to regulate the population in order to protect the native marine environment in the Caribbean, the Western Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.
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