Invasive Lionfish of the Caribbean

lionfish

The ‘Pterois miles’ and ‘Pterois volitans’ are more commonly known as Lionfish. They are originally endemic to the Indo-Pacific, from the Red Sea to Western Australia, however in the 1980s they were discovered across the Atlantic Ocean on the east coast of the Americas. How the species were introduced to the area is unknown, but since the first sighting off the coast of Florida they have been spreading rapidly in every direction, and now they can be found in the entire Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico and have even been sighted as far north as Massachusetts. In their natural habitat they are an amazing sight, however in some parts of the Caribbean there are over 1000 living specimens per acre. This means on a single dive you could see more Lionfish than Damselfish! A chilling reminder to how destructive an invasive species can be.

lionfish-caribbean

The Lionfish has very few natural predators in their natural environment, so in a new predator free area they have thrived and their numbers have grown exponentially. They can be considered top of the food chain along with several species of shark. They have up to 13 dorsal spines, 2 pelvic spines and 3 anal spines, all armed with a very potent venom to deter any potential predators. As they are still relatively new to the area many species of local fish do not hide when one approaches as they have no reason to fear it. A single female Lionfish can produce up to 2 million eggs a year, meaning that they can breed incredibly fast. Lionfish can live up to 10 years, during that time they prey on up to 70 different species, which means they are a very dangerous to the Caribbean ecosystem. The majority of the Lionfish in the Western Atlantic is Pterois volitans, making up around 93% of the population. They have been described as one of the most aggressively invasive species on the planet. It is believed that Lionfish could be decreasing Atlantic reef diversity by up to 80%, and there are reports of a single Lionfish on a reef reducing juvenile reef fish populations by 79%.

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As they are breeding so fast many dive operations in the area are working their best to reduce their numbers. Any sightings outside of their natural Indo-Pacific home should be reported to a marine agency, so their current spread can be documented. Many divers in the area will remove them from the water whenever they see them, either by netting them of spearing them. Many dive schools will provide (experienced) divers with rubber band propelled spears to take on fun dives in case they find Lionfish. It has also become common to eat Lionfish in the Caribbean. It is a white flaky fish when cooked and is similar to Snapper meat. Although they have highly venomous spines the meat itself is not poisonous so (once the spines have been removed) it can be treated just as any other fish.

‘Invasive Lionfish of the Caribbean’ was written by Mike