The alluring lionfish draws in both photography enthusiasts and prey alike. These unique fish are native in the Indo-Pacific, here they have natural predators and their numbers are kept in check. Unfortunately there are now established populations across a vast geographic area, including the southeast coast of the United States of America, in parts of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.
Their burgeoning numbers are a huge concern. Their flamboyant appearance conceals a voracious predator. In the tropical Atlantic they have virtually no natural enemies, breed prolifically (a single female can produce 2 million eggs per year) and they view the reef as a personal buffet. They are non-selective and glutton feeders. Lionfish have been known to consume 50 different species of fish and their stomachs can expand up to thirty times their normal size after a meal. Mark Hixon et al (2009) determined that a single lionfish can reduce juvenile fish populations by 79% in just 5 weeks.
How did this beguiling and hazardous species invade and spread across such an extensive range? One theory is that 6 lionfish were accidentally released from an aquarium during hurricane Andrew in 1992. As far fetched as this sounds, genetic research supports this notion. It is however likely that many more of these hunters have been intentionally released by thoughtless aquarium enthusiasts.
What is being done to reduce this destructive population? National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association of the United States (NOAA) researchers have concluded that invasive lionfish populations can not be curbed and will continue to expand. The diving community has stepped up to find safe ways to catch lionfish. One such method is the ‘zookeeper’, a plastic cylinder to store lionshfish underwater that protects divers from being stung, another diver has developed an adapted pole spear to safely catch lionfish. Researchers in the Caribbean are proactively ‘teaching’ sharks to prey on these predators. Time will tell if these unusual methods will have an impact on diminishing the population.
We salute the members of the diving community who are working together to eradicate this unwelcome ‘alien’. Despite the dire situation that lionfish are causing in the American waters, divers can choose to experience lionfish in their natural habitat in one of the many superb diving locations in the Indo-Pacific.