Lionfish are invasive to U.S. waterways. These tropical fish are sometimes released into the wild when they are too big or aggressive for pet owners to keep. They endanger our native species and reef environments. As a recreational diver with dives in the Caribbean and Mexico, I've seen the damage lionfish can do. We care about the things we experience.
Known in the marine world as Pterois, lionfish are native to Indo-Pacific oceans. These fish have reddish-brown and white vertical stripes, but their most impressive features are pectoral fins and fin rays that resemble a lion's mane. Poisonous spines incapacitate prey and are dangerous to humans. A prick from a lionfish causes extreme pain, swelling, nausea, vomiting, fever, dizziness, or numbing.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, lionfish were first spotted in the Atlantic in 1985. By 2002, they were flourishing. The Florida Keys and Key West newspaper reported fishing derbies brought in more than 1,500 lionfish in November 2011. Lionfish eat other fish and organisms that play a part in keeping a reef healthy. They are masters of invasion because they have no enemies. Moderate temperatures help them mate year around in the Atlantic. One female can produce an estimated two million eggs per year.
Lionfish are believed to have been introduced into the ocean by pet owners disposing of aquarium fish. Despite this problem, they are still sold commercially for aquariums. They may grow up to fifteen inches long and are known for making meals out of other fish in the tank. Contents of lionfish stomachs reveal they also eat shrimp, crab, mollusks, crustaceans, and a plethora of larger fish in juvenile stages. Scientists have spotted them in mangrove and sea grass habitats, as well. These locations are fish nurseries, meaning lionfish eat reef fish before they ever make it out to live on a reef.
Some people feel they have the right to keep any animal as a pet as long as it's legal and cared for properly, but lionfish are dangerous to humans and eat other aquarium fish. Salt water aquarium enthusiasts do not appear to grasp the impact of releasing them into the wild. In 2012, the United States Geological Survey reported a 65% decline in lionfish prey over two years. The reports of overpopulation and the effects to coastal habitats are red flags that their accessibility to the private sector needs to be addressed.
There are measures in place to battle this invasion. In Florida, releasing a non-native animal could mean a year in jail or a fine up to $1,000. Also, it has become a tradition for many communities to host fishing derbies for lionfish. The consensus agrees they taste like tilapia and are delicious. With regulation and common sense, a plate of lionfish and hush puppies could become as common as snapper and slaw. But more needs to be done. If lionfish were banned, a steep financial penalty may dissuade fish owners from acquiring them.
Divers who enjoy exploring reefs off U.S. coasts and the Caribbean Sea will tell you that reef life is in decline. Many of the small, beautiful fish we love are hard to find these days. In their place, lionfish now appear. Without great change it is likely your first dive, along with many others', may be a cruel disappointment.
These fish invaders get a mention in my environmental romance, Turtle Soup, where biologist, Jack Brandon, takes his sea turtle research to Atlanta's Georgia Aquarium. He finds himself matching wits with cafe owner, Sara Hart, after a bad run-in at the airport where she picks up his little black book. Turtle Soup is a fun and witty romance with great food set between Georgia and the Caribbean.
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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:
The US Geological Survey:
The Florida Keys and Key West Daily Online Newspaper:
New York Times: