For years, commercial ships had two main pathways to easily traverse the globe: the Panama and Suez Canals. Now, after 30 years of unprecedented sea ice melt in the Arctic, the northern Atlantic and Pacific are connected for the first time in 2 million years. That means Arctic shipping is an option, and it’s certainly an appealing one: The routes are faster, ships need less fuel, and piracy isn’t a threat.
It’s venomous, voracious, and taking over reefs across the western Atlantic.
This strange-looking predator is a lionfish, a.k.a. Pterois volitans. Native to Indo-Pacific reefs, lionfish are anything but subtle. The large, striped spines protruding from their bodies are their main defense, filled with neurotoxic venom to deter predators. While the venom isn’t deadly to humans, running afoul of a lionfish isn’t fun—side effects include excruciating pain, headaches, difficulty breathing, and vomiting. Lesson learned: don’t mess with a lionfish.
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.
Oceana marine scientist Jon Warrenchuk reports on yesterday’s expedition dive task in Key West: searching for lionfish.
After a bumpy nighttime transit, we’re now anchored off the lower keys of Key West.
I’ve asked the dive team to count the number of lionfish they see at the dive sites today. It’s easy to recognize lionfish, with their long fin rays and spines, and you’ve probably seen them in saltwater aquariums. Yep, that’s them, staked out in some preferential corner of the aquarium, looking all spiny and finny.
Even though they look cool, we really do not want to see lionfish at the reefs here in Key West. Lionfish are native to the waters around Australia and Indonesia, where they are regular denizens of the fish community there. In those waters, lionfish are bound with all those ecological checks and balances that come with living in their natural habitat; all their competitors and predators that have evolved in the same place have worked out their happy little evolutionary détente.