Typically known for its beautiful but poisonous rays that tend to convey “stay the hell away” like few other creatures in the natural world, the lionfish is one of the most recognizable fish in the ocean. This creature is also probably known to many from its cameo in the fish tanks of many a chinese restaunt over the years. The beauty of these fish was typically limited to far off reefs of the pacific ocean, that is until the 1990’s when they were first spotted in the Caribbean. It is thought that our own marine fish hobby is responsible for releasing a few of these fish into the wild from someone’s fish tank when they didn’t want to keep them any longer. Since then, the Lionfish has been eating up many of the juvenile fish in an all you can eat Caribbean buffet. Efforts to remove this invasive fish from the Caribbean have included netting, spear fishing, and most recently Lionfish derby’s to try and reduce their numbers.
A Marine Tank Pet Gone Bad
In the marine aquarium world, lionfish are typically found in fish only tanks, yet even then, their tankmates must be chosen carefully or else they will become expensive food for these voracious eaters. Native to the pacific, there are about 15 species of Lionfish. They eat a wide variety of things from small and juvenile fish to shellfish and crabs and do so in great quantities. They have a unique hunting ability courtesy of a specially adapted organ called a swim bladder. Most fish use a swim bladder to help them with buoyancy and balance in the water column, but the lionfish puts a twist on this. They possess a bilateral swim bladder which allows them to tilt and pitch their bodies. They combine this ability with their poisonous spines to corner and capture their prey like an apache helicopter in the ocean. Combined with not really having any real predators in the Caribbean, this makes the impact of this super predator on reef fish severe and far reaching in the fragile nearshore ocean environments. The range of this predator has now been documented from the Caribbean all the way north to Nova Scotia and to depths up to 1000ft!
How to Catch a Lionfish…Very carefully
There are many ways that you can help reduce the population of Lionfish whether you live in areas that they have settled in or you want to do something good while you are on vacation.
Lion fish derby’s have popped up around the southeast in the last few years. These fishing contests focus on many boats going out on a single day or weekend and catching as many lion fish as they can. Prizes are awarded for the largest fish, most fish caught, etc which is a fun way to do something good for the oceans. Derbies are also a great way to get your kids involved in fishing with a touch of conservation, just make sure you help them take these fish off the hook!
On a few of our recent trips to the Caribbean, we have seen divers come back holding bags of 20-40 lion fish that they were able to net or spear while diving on reefs and wrecks. As one looks to the horizon from the beach and then sees the amount and size of these invasive pests divers are able to find in a small area, the scale of this problem really starts to sync in.
Lionfish, the other other white meat
At first glance, these spined, striped, stinging machines probably wouldn’t be the first thing you would want to pop in your mouth, but as it turns out, you would be wrong. Once you snip off the poisonous spines and fillet these little roaches of the ocean, they reveal a surprisingly flakey and supple meat that in my opinion could be mistaken any day of the week on a menu as grouper. Given this, if we could get the focus on fishing for grouper shifted over to lionfish, it seems we could both do something good for the environment as well as have a tasty little filet on our plates.
While it certainly looks like we are stuck with this super predator for at least the near future, hopefully it will serve as an example of why we need to educate people not to discard unwanted fish tank inhabitants into an environment that was not meant for them. The reprocussions of such actions can also be seen in the examples of Xenia in the Caribbean and few other spicies that have recently popped up in the “wrong ocean”.
At this point, it seems to be all we can do to shift our astounding ability to overfish from native species over to invasive species in order to give these ecosystems even a remote chance to try to adapt to this new normal that humans have created.