The Beacon

Blog Tags: Coral Reefs

How to Hunt a Lionfish

lionfish

Success! Bagging these invasive species is good for the reef habitat ©Michael Stephens

One fish is rapidly becoming one of the biggest problems facing the fragile food web of coral reefs in the U.S.: the lionfish. Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific region, but are an invasive species in the Caribbean and Atlantic.

In their native waters, lionfish are at the top of the food chain, and are ferocious hunters. They are equipped with dangerous venom-filled spines that run along their dorsal, pectoral, and anal fins. Although they are venomous, they are not poisonous, and are safe to eat once you cut the spines off – and are actually quite tasty!

Twenty years ago lionfish could only be seen in their native habitat in the Pacific, as well as in many aquariums in the United States, but today they can be seen off the eastern seaboard of the U.S. and everywhere in the Caribbean. They are thought to have been accidently released when a hurricane in the late 1990s destroyed a beachfront aquarium in Florida. The fish immediately colonized the Florida Keys, and their eggs floated in the currents around the Caribbean. Scientists were left to watch in horror as the lionfish spread in a predictable pattern around the Caribbean Sea along the current patterns.

Lionfish are voracious feeders, and have no natural predators here, which has resulted in an exponential growth of their population. Plus, they spawn year-round and each brood can have tens of thousands of eggs. They are especially worrisome in the Caribbean since they prey on juvenile fish species, including the endangered Nassau grouper and other recovering fish species.

Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to solving the problem. The population has established itself to the point where eradication appears futile. But every little bit helps, and I myself have hunted the pesky predators all across the Caribbean; from beaches in Florida to the pristine reefs of the Turks and Caicos Islands, and in the world’s second longest barrier reef off the coast of Belize.

There are two ways to hunt lionfish. The easiest is with a spear gun, and the other is by trapping the fish in between two nets. The key to hunting lionfish is to move slowly and stalk the fish so as not to spook it. When threatened, they will swim into small crevices that make them nearly impossible to reach. When using nets, they key is to herd the fish into one net by chasing it from behind with the other. This is difficult because you have to anticipate where the fish will swim to. Using a spear gun is much easier, but can attract sharks, who want to check out the fresh piece of meat you just snagged.

There are endless ways to eat lionfish; my personal favorites are lionfish pizza and lionfish-cakes (crab cake style). Lionfish is a flaky white fish and can be used in recipes for halibut, cod, tilapia, and haddock.

Next time you venture into the water in the Caribbean, be on the lookout for this invasive species, just don’t get too close! Learn more about the Lionfish invasion at http://www.reef.org/lionfish.


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Creature Feature: Seahorse

Camouflaging in coral ©Wikimedia Commons

Though you won’t see them saddled and ready to ride anytime soon, seahorses are pretty fascinating little sea creatures.

Named for their resemblance to the horses that we’re used to seeing on land, the seahorse is one of the slowest moving fish in the ocean. They swim upright, unlike their cousin the pipefish, and flutter their dorsal fin up to 30-40 times per second to move around (more like a hummingbird than a horse).

There are 47 distinct species of seahorses, and all are in the genus Hippocampus, which comes from the Ancient Greek for “sea monster.” You can find them in shallow waters throughout the world, especially in seagrass beds, coral reefs, and mangroves, where they can take cover and hide from bigger fish that might want to make a meal out of them.

Seahorses are fairly small, ranging from 0.6 to 14 inches. But the smallest of all are the pygmy seahorses. Scientists are continuing to discover new species of pygmy seahorse, but they’re tough to find because they camouflage themselves and live in or near coral, algae, or seaweed, where they blend so well that they’re nearly impossible to spot. They often use their tails to anchor themselves to a surface, then use their snouts to catch brine shrimp and other small crustaceans floating by.

One of the seahorse’s most unique characteristics is that males carry the fertilized eggs instead of females. The male seahorse has a brood pouch on his front side where the female deposits eggs during mating. He carries the eggs until they’re fully developed, then releases the tiny seahorses out into the ocean to fend for themselves. A single brood can contain up to 1,500 young!

Because seahorses are so elusive, we don’t know very much about their populations worldwide. But the coral reefs, seagrass beds, and other areas they call home are endangered by habitat depletion, pollution, and ocean acidification, which has made some species of seahorse vulnerable to extinction.


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Ocean Hero John Halas Retires

John Halas (foreground, left). Photo credit: Judy Halas/Courtesy of John Halas

The Florida ocean conservation community said farewell to one of its greatest servants this week. John Halas, who was the winner of Oceana’s first annual Ocean Heroes contest, has retired after nearly 32 years of work protecting coral reefs in Florida.

Halas, a marine biologist and manager of the Upper Region of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, has been working to protect coral systems in Florida since 1981. After observing coral damage caused by careless anchoring, he took it upon himself to develop an environmentally friendly anchor and mooring buoy system that prevents damage to coral reefs and has worked to implement this anchorage system in 38 countries.

We’re sad to see John go but wish him a very happy retirement!

Stay tuned for this year’s Ocean Heroes contest, which kicks off with nominations on World Oceans Day, June 8.


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Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen on '60 Minutes'

On Sunday "60 Minutes" aired a great piece by Anderson Cooper on one of the most pristine coral reefs in the world, the Gardens of the Queen (or Jardines de la Reina) in Cuba.

Diving in, Cooper is not disappointed – he is surrounded by colorful corals, large sharks and a 200-lb critically endangered goliath grouper.

Oceana’s research vessel, the Ranger, sailed to the Gardens of the Queen in 2008, and documented a wide variety of marine life including sharks and sea turtles.

Check it out:


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Friday Infographic: The Rise and Fall of a Coral Reef

This is part of a series of ocean infographics by artist Don Foley. These infographics also appear in Oceana board member Ted Danson’s book, “Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them.”  

Coral reefs cover around 1 percent of the world’s continental shelves, yet they provide habitat and food to at least a quarter of all species in the oceans, including 4,000 species of fish. These diverse habitats also provide food, income and coastal protection for some 500 million people.

Infographic by Don Foley

But coral reefs and the species that rely on them are increasingly threatened by an invisible menace: ocean acidification. Thanks to human-produced carbon dioxide emissions, the oceans are now 30 percent more acidic than they were prior to the industrial revolution and more acidic than at any point over the past 20 million years. Corals and other species are unlikely to be able to adapt to this rapid change in acidity and are likely to suffer severe decline.

Coral reefs are built by tiny, soft coral animals, or polyps. These polyps are relatives of jellyfish and have evolved to secrete calcium carbonate skeletons that provide the polyp with structure and protection.

Colonies of hundreds to thousands of polyps live together as corals and can build huge reef structures over many years. Not only are coral reefs some of the most diverse habitats on Earth, but they are also some of the oldest. Corals grow only millimeters to centimeters per year, and it can take tens to hundreds of thousands of years for large reefs to form.

You can help protect coral reefs by telling your Senators to reduce carbon emissions and stop ocean acidification.


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Ranger Discovers Deep-sea Coral Reef in Mediterranean

News from the deep: Oceana's crew aboard the Ranger has discovered a previously undocumented coral reef in the Alboran Sea in the high seas of the Mediterranean.

The reef, which is located more than 1,300 feet below the surface and covers over 1 million square feet, is formed primarily by white coral. With this discovery, Oceana with be able to glean additional data from the reef to support our efforts to declare new marine protected areas in the Mediterranean.

Coral reefs are the backbone of many marine ecosystems, and deep-sea corals area among the most vulnerable. Tragically, many reefs are destroyed by bottom trawling, a fishing technique akin to clear-cutting that devastates coral reefs and creates seafloor wastelands devoid of life.

And coral reefs aren’t the only habitats that suffer. The area around the newly discovered reef is flourishing with other important habitats including gorgonian gardens and rare glass sponge fields. In order to protect this region, Oceana is planning to present the data to the Barcelona Convention in the near future, pressing officials to list it as a protected area.


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Ocean Hero Finalists: Dylan Vecchione

Dylan explores a coral reef.

This is the eleventh in a series of posts about this year’s Ocean Hero finalists.

Today’s featured junior ocean hero finalist is 12-year-old Dylan Vecchione, who was nominated for his commitment to coral reef conservation.


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Guest Post: The Rush to Drill in the Caribbean

Image courtesy of Jaime Matera

Editor’s note: It’s not just the U.S. government that’s pushing to drill in our oceans. Guest blogger Jaime Matera is a marine anthropologist who is working to stop potential drilling off the coast of his home country, Colombia.

In 2010 the Colombian government opened up pristine coastal ecosystems in the Caribbean Sea to oil exploration. If allowed to continue, two petroleum companies, Repsol-YPF and Ecopetrol, would be drilling for oil on the second largest reef system in the Caribbean.  

The Colombian archipelago of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina lies on the southwestern Caribbean Sea, just 125 miles off the coast of Central America. It is home to an exceptional marine ecosystem and a native island population with strong connections to the resources. 

The reef system surrounding the islands of Providencia and Santa Catalina is the second largest in the Caribbean. It covers approximately 255 km² and includes extensive sea grass beds, mangrove forests, and patchy reefs systems. In addition, a number of uninhabited cays and atolls are found in surrounding waters.


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Guest Post: Bora Bora’s Threatened Reefs

The island of Bora Bora in French Polynesia. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Guest blogger Jon Bowermaster is a writer and filmmaker. In this post, Jon reports on the state of corals in Bora Bora.

Bora Bora, Society Islands, French Polynesia – I dove last week in the beautiful lagoon that surrounds the tall island to have a first hand look at how the coral reef is doing in this South Pacific resort island. The report is not good.

Descending to 90 feet, it was immediately clear that the reef has been hammered in the past few years. I’ve come here every year for the past decade and have seen incredible change.

I spent most of the morning observing the still-growing reef system just 10 to 30 feet below the surface. Although the waters are warm and magnificently clear, invasive predators and natural disaster have both taken big tolls.

Populations of acanthaster -- also known as the crown-of-thorns starfish – mysteriously arrived in Polynesia in 2006. No one is sure exactly how they got here or where they originated, though invasive species are well known for hitching rides on cargo ships and jumping off far from home. Here in the shallows surrounding Bora Bora – as they have done to reefs on nearby Moorea, Raiatea-Tahaa, Huahine and Maupiti – the predatory starfish have devoured hundreds of acres of coral.


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A Third of Reef Fish Face Extinctions from Climate Change

A blacknosed butterflyfish. © Oceana

When you picture the impacts of climate change, what animal comes to mind? Is it a polar bear floating on a thin chunk of ice, or maybe another cold climate species losing habitat like a walrus or a penguin?

Add butterflyfish to your thoughts about climate change, because a new study predicts that they, along with one-third of all coral reef fish, are losing reef habitat and are locally threatened with extinction from climate change.

Coral reefs are threatened by two aspects of carbon dioxide emissions, ocean acidification and climate change. Corals are susceptible to sustained periods of warmer water temperatures due to climate change, which causes them to bleach when they expel algae, turning them white.


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