The delicate ecosystems of coral reefs all over the Caribbean and Atlantic coast are under attack, and this time it’s not pollution, climate change or human destruction. A small, splendidly colored, spiny fish is taking over and scientists aren’t happy about it.
Meet the lionfish, though small; the name is more than appropriate. This invasive species native to the Indo Pacific has got all the tools necessary to survive in the balmy, blue waters of Florida, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. With no natural predators in these waters, an extremely high reproduction rate and a voracious appetite are decimating fish populations and disrupting fragile ecosystems that if not controlled, could be devastating for the future of our coral reefs.
Scientists aren’t 100% clear on how the lionfish made its way to the Atlantic in the first place, but it’s a safe bet that humans had a hand in the matter. It is suspected that aquarium owners have been disposing of unwanted lionfish in the ocean for over 25 years- and boy do they love their new Atlantic home. Female lionfish can reproduce up to 15,000 eggs every four days for a year- do that math!
The lionfish appetite is the biggest problem. These carnivorous hunters will ingest anything that fits in their mouths, including other lionfish. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), they consume over 50 species of fish including some economically and ecologically important species. One of these are parrotfish, which feed heavily upon algae and control its growth. Without them, algae could blanket coral and suffocate them to death.
Also, with so many lionfish preying upon baby commercial fish, it could have a sufficient impact on fishing practices in the area, mainly because these babies never get the chance to reproduce.
Conservationist groups such as REEF, USGS and dive organizations have banded together to spread the word about the harmful effects of lionfish. Special derbies and competitions are held where divers can win prizes for most lionfish caught. Scientists are also conducting in-depth research and experiments to reduce the population, such as teaching reef sharks that lionfish are a food source. And, if you sit down at your favorite local seafood or sushi joint, you may notice a new item on the menu; anyone up for a lionfish roll?