The issue of the Indo-Pacific native Lionfish taking over the waters of Florida and into the Caribbean and up the US Atlantic coast is not a new issue, still it is receiving a great deal of attention. Losing the war against the small and beautiful lionfish could mean the lost of hundreds of thousands of jobs and drastic increases in food prices.
The lionfish can wipe out many of the commercial fish of the Caribbean creating a negative impact on the fishing industry as well as impacting the tourism industry. The spring season starts an upward trend in the number of scuba divers that visit and dive the coastal waters of Florida. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is reaching out to divers and fisherman to remove as many of these fish as possible. New is a state record program for Lionfish. Individuals who catch one in the state of Florida may complete an application to be added to the state record. A recreational fishing license is not required for recreational fishers/ divers targeting lionfish while using a pole spear, a Hawaiian Sling, a handheld net or any spearing device that is specifically designed and marketed exclusively for lionfish. A diver considering gathering these fish should review the FWC page for more information.
Why is the Lionfish a threat?
There are a some excellent articles on this website that goes into details of the threat that this invasive species represents. The Ongoing Scourge of Lionfish gives some of the background information and the article about Reef.org at DEMA gives some updated numbers. To summarize the issue, Lionfish do not have any natural enemies in the waters of the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Coast. Under ideal conditions, the lionfish is very prolific. A mature female can release 3,000 eggs every two or three days, over 2 million in a year. Lionfish have enormous appetites and will eat anything it can get in it’s mouth. If it eats its full, it has the ability to expand its stomach to take in more food. They can also stretch their mouths. Oregon State University marine biologist , Mark Hixon and his team did a controlled study and have found that a single fish can reduce the number of individual fishes on a small reef by 79% in just five weeks. One lionfish can consume 20 small fish in 30 minutes.
While speaking on a related subject: Ross Robertson, a Staff Scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, said this about the them: “Lionfish succeeded in the Caribbean for two reasons: First, as there are no native lionfish in the Atlantic, Caribbean prey have little idea of the threat such an unusual predator poses (for example, lionfish eat lots of Caribbean cleaner-shrimp, which approach predatory native fish when proffering their services). Second, lionfish originated in a high-diversity area (the Indo-west Pacific) and lower-diversity ecosystems (here the Caribbean) have lower “biotic resistance” to invasion, i.e. reduced ability to thwart invaders from higher-diversity areas.”
In simple language, they have taken over the reefs.
The FWC is attacking the problem on many avenues of approach. One is to get more people to accept Lionfish as an alternative for other species on the dinner plate. The lionfish is devastating many species of fish in Floridian and Caribbean waters. A study in the Bahamas has shown that in some reefs the dominate fish is the lionfish and species such as those in the snapper family and grouper families are down as much as 80%. This has cause the market price for those fish to raise greatly. The FWC is working hard to show people that the fish is good eating. They encourage the development of a commercial network and give classes on how to prepare the fish to be cooked as well as cooking demonstrations at public events. It is felt that if consumer demands rises for lionfish then the commercial enterprise can reduce the population. Less pressure will be felt for the snapper and grouper populations that have been hard hit. This combination will help allow those commercial fish to regain some of their numbers and lessen the threat of extinction.
Private groups can also request that the FWC provide a speaker for a presentation on any topic related to the menace.
Before they can be eaten, the lionfish has to be taken out of the water. Traditional fishing methods are not effective with these fish. While scientist are working on a selective trap that will hold a lionfish but release others, they currently are captured one at a time. Dive centers and non profit conservation organizations have been holding lionfish derbies. These events are mainly geared toward divers and spear fishers, however a few are for hook and line fisherman. These derbies create a contest with awards going for the most caught and often other prizes as well. Many of these derbies are sponsored by the FWC. If you are interested in joining a derby there are a number currently scheduled.
The federal government is also stepping up the game. The “Finding Innovative Lionfish Elimination Technologies Act of 2016,” has been introduced in congress as HR 4787 with the short title of the FILET act of 2016. The bill is designed to authorized grants for educational institutions to find ways to eliminate these invasive fish.
This is not the only invasive species to create severe environmental and economic problems. In response to recent invasions such as this one, the Department of the Interior has created a framework to respond to future cases. The report, Safeguarding America’s Lands and Waters from Invasive Species: A National Framework for Early Detection and Rapid Response proposes to stop their spread through early detection and rapid response (EDRR) actions. Had such a program been in place in the 1990s, the lionfish problem could of been eradicated. At this point the best effort would be to simply control it.
While this article has been focused on Florida, other US States are also establishing their own programs. Nations within the Caribbean are fighting the same battles. Some of these nations are doing better as holding off the spread as they had time to prepare for the invasion.
Do your part, join a derby if one is available and eat more lion fish.