Lionfish have invaded the Caribbean. The first documented lionfish were spotted off the coast of Florida in the early 1990’s. Reports of sightings are as far back as the mid 1980’s. Speculation varies from aquarium specimens released into the wild to traveling in the ballasts of ships through the Panama Canal. Regardless of how and when they arrived, more important is their rapid spread throughout the region. Currently they have been seen as far north as New York and as far south as Venezuela.
What’s the big deal?
Lionfish (Pterois) are indigenous to the Indo-Pacific Ocean. There they have a long standing system of checks and balances through nature. In the Caribbean, there are no natural predators, or rather, no fish recognize them as prey-yet. Rapidly reproducing, females spawn up to 15,000 eggs per mating cycle. There are up to 8 females in each harem during mating. It is suggested that female lionfish can spawn monthly, however, there is no hard data to support this claim. Even a fraction of these numbers explain how the population of lionfish in the Caribbean has gone from 6 to uncountable in less than 20 years.
So scientists, researchers, scuba divers and reef conservationists have collectively come to the conclusion that lionfish are taking over the sea. They are reproducing at an accelerated rate and decimating many reef species and their young. With their large mouths they simply open and gulp fish whole. Potential predators are naturally weary of the long spiny fins which contain poison for those who venture too close.
The majority of concerned people have agreed that spearing them will at least help keep them under control along reefs where divers are abundant. Divers, Divemasters, and Instructors are spearing as often as they can. Organized hunts include local “Lionfish Derby” and weeklong lionfish specialty hunts (Bahamas) trying to keep the invaders under control. In many dive destinations, there is some “training” by the human predator to try and get other fish to recognize the lionfish as prey by feeding sharks, eels, and grouper the slaughtered lionfish. There are a few photos circulating the web of a shark and an eel going after a lionfish. Perhaps this trend will continue and lionfish will find their balance in the Caribbean Sea.
In the meantime, divers will continue to spear and eat the lionfish in the Caribbean, fulfilling the urge to hunt and maintaining a healthy reef in limited areas. As for the rest of the vast reefs, only time will tell what will happen to the fish and the coral. Will Mother Nature prevail?