Lionfish Invasion: A Threat to Atlantic Reefs

Summary:

Lionfish are a venomous species of fish that are native to the Indo-Pacific region. They were imported and released into the Atlantic/Caribbean where they have no natural predators, they prey on all sorts of reef fish, they reproduce year-round, and have spread as far north as Rhode Island and south as Brazil, at depths down to 1,000 feet.

 

“But what can I do?”

Option 1:

If you scuba dive or free-dive, hunt lionfish.  If you like seafood, consume lionfish. Encourage seafood restaurants and markets to sell lionfish. Spread awareness of the problem and the consequences of releasing invasive species into the wild.

Option 2:

Import invasive species for your aquarium, and when they eat all your other fish, release them into the Atlantic Ocean to wreak havoc on the food chain.

 

Let me know which option you prefer in the comments below!

 

Details:

“The decline and loss of coral reefs has significant social, cultural, economic and ecological impacts on people and communities throughout the world. As the “rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs provide economic services — jobs, food and tourism — estimated to be worth as much as $375 billion each year” (NOAA). They also provide storm protection to coastal communities, and medicines that fight inflammatory diseases, heart diseases, and cancer.

While climate change, pollution, and unsustainable fishing practices are the greatest threats our reefs face today, additional threats do exist. Since the 1980’s, United States and Caribbean reefs have been under attack from a foreign threat.

lionfish

Pterois volitans, more commonly known as the lionfish, is a species of fish native to the Indo-Pacific region of the world. They are a visually appealing species, growing up to 46 centimeters (18 inches) with dazzling stripes, and magnificent venomous spines that ward of predators and resemble a lion’s mane. Their unique appearance creates popularity and demand in the aquarium trade. The venom in their spines is not considered fatal to humans, however one sting causes extreme pain and swelling that can last for days. Their beauty and relatively slow swimming speed conceal the fact that they are voracious hunters that feed on a wide variety of reef fish and crustaceans. If you do happen to come in contact with their spines, immediately abort the dive, remove any watches, rings, or bracelets near the point of contact, soak the wound in hot water, and seek medical attention.

Scientists believe the first lionfish in the Atlantic were released in the waters off of Florida after being imported for aquariums, which turned out to be a catastrophic mistake. Since then, they have spread as far north as Rhode Island, all throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, and as far south as Brazil. They have even been documented at depths below 300 meters (approx. 1,000 feet). The problem is, since they are foreign, no native species in the Atlantic consider lionfish prey, allowing them to go unchecked wreaking havoc on the reef hierarchy and food chain for up to 30 years. Exacerbating the problem, lionfish reproduce year-round after they reach one year of age. A single female can release 50,000 eggs every time she breeds, which can potentially be as often as every three days. In addition to their reproduction cycles, their appetites are equally dangerous. Scientists have discovered over 100 different species of reef fish contained in the stomachs of dissected individuals.

The bottom line is lionfish are here to stay in the Atlantic. It would be impossible to completely eradicate the species from such a wide range and deep depths. However, there is hope. Studies in Florida and The Bahamas have shown that if the majority of the lionfish are removed from a shallow reef, fish populations rebound fairly quick. As more people gain awareness of the threat they impose on reefs, more people head out to hunt them. Some coastal communities hold hunting derbies with prizes for the most, largest, and smallest lionfish captured. Several grocery stores and seafood markets in Florida have started selling lionfish to meet the increasing demand. Engineers have started designing lionfish hunting machines that are efficient at locating and culling the threat. On some reefs, sharks, large groupers, and moray eels have started eating lionfish provided by divers, which on one hand teaches them to eat an invasive species, but on the other hand teaches them to associate humans with food. I personally experienced this when I was chased by a green moray eel on the reefs of Roatan, Honduras (see Central America gallery for footage).

http://vibesandhorizons.com/central-america/

Unfortunately, the story of the lionfish invasion is a tragic one. Yes, lionfish damage native reef fish populations in the United States and Caribbean, but the fault does not lie with them. They did not swim across oceans to get here and invade coral reef ecosystems. Lionfish are the only animals that I have ever participated in culling. Humans introduced them to this region, so we as a species are accountable. The lionfish are simply surviving, and thriving, in the new environment they were forced into. These delicate marine ecosystems developed over thousands of years, and humans possess the ability to disrupt them in an instant. However, we also have the ability to reverse some of the damage we have done. Removing lionfish from the Atlantic is the most direct way to mitigate damages. People can also create demand by consuming lionfish, and encouraging local seafood restaurants to add lionfish to their menu.

History is important. Hopefully we learn a valuable lesson from the lionfish invasion so we can avoid similar ecological disasters in the future. With enough effort in the fight against invasive species, in addition to other issues including climate change and overfishing, many of our reefs could recover.

What are your thoughts?

122 replies
    • Pizzi
      Pizzi says:

      There are several organizations working on research and control! REEF in Florida, Cape Eleuthera Institute in The Bahamas, and NOAA all have lionfish programs!

      Reply
  1. Kaylee
    Kaylee says:

    An ex boyfriend had two of these in his aquarium by themselves. I had no idea they were an invasive species until now though! That’s crazy! Really good article, it really kept me interested!

    Reply
    • Pizzi
      Pizzi says:

      Thank you Kaylee!! That’s good he had them by themselves, they can really do damage when around other small fish!

      Reply
  2. Edoardo
    Edoardo says:

    Unfortunately, in my region (Tuscany, Italy), we have a similar problem since the 90’s, with the Procambarus clarkii, which is an alien species (originals from Mexico, and fluvial areas of the USA) with no natural predator here. This species has been imported to be introduced as food in Italy, by a company who bankrupted and it seems they did not keep care about the big pools where the Procambarus clarkii were collected. So during a storm, the rain water filled completely the pools and they have been able to escape and find refuge in a near lake. They started their dominium, destroying the ecosystem of fauna and flora of the lake, rivers, canals and even fields. What have we done to limit the problem? People are allowed to hunt and consume their meet with a not limit of quantity and is forbidden their release in the environment.

    Reply
    • Pizzi
      Pizzi says:

      Thanks for sharing Edoardo! Another tragic story of humans disrupting an ecosystem, unfortunately. Hopefully you can limit the damage over there as well, Tuscany is a truly beautiful place!

      Reply
    • Pizzi
      Pizzi says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it Farah! My goal is get more people interested and spread awareness of the problem, thanks for reading!

      Reply
  3. Una-Minh
    Una-Minh says:

    It’s a hard thing to know what to do about the lionfish – especially since their species promotes invasion of even more fish! Food for thought.

    Can’t even imagine what we’d do here in Ireland if that happened…

    Reply
  4. Nicole Anderson | Camping for Women
    Nicole Anderson | Camping for Women says:

    Until reading this post, I was blissfully unaware of the existence and significant issues surrounding the lionfish. Having understood the gist of the problem, I do agree with the measures you have suggested in tackling this situation. Step 1 must be an education program to get people to understand and rally more support toward addressing this.

    Reply
  5. Kimberly C.
    Kimberly C. says:

    Wow who would think that a fish so pretty can do so much damage? Thanks for raising awareness. I bet a lot of people don’t even know anything about this. I’m one of them.

    Reply
  6. Bekki
    Bekki says:

    It is amazing to me how quickly things spin out of control when we mindlessly transport food from one area to another, overuse pesticides, or ignore the issue of invasive species.

    I had no idea the beautiful lion fish was an issue!

    We need to make sure we are training up our children to think before they act.

    In our area, goldfish are taking over lakes. People are well meaning as they “save” Goldie by releasing her in the wild, but they never stop to consider the chain reaction…

    Reply
  7. Anuradha Manjul
    Anuradha Manjul says:

    I understand what you are saying. We have lost many natural species plants and animals because of introduction of some new foreign species without realising the impact on the natural environment. Thoughtful planning needs to be done before we pick up steps like this

    Reply
  8. Amna Tariq Shah
    Amna Tariq Shah says:

    This is some very useful information. Knew very little of this before. In fact I knew nothing, I didn’t know the lion fish was a harm in any way. Thanks for this post! Well researched !

    Reply
    • Pizzi
      Pizzi says:

      Understandable, but it is pretty easy to remove the spines and filet it! I did it myself every day for a few months. I would say the only person at risk is the person cutting off the spines, if your hand slips up you can get a nice sting.

      Reply
  9. Ania Travels
    Ania Travels says:

    Holy crap 50,000 eggs every 3 days???!!!! I had no idea they were such a problem though. I’m a pescatarian, so if I see lionfish on the menu, will definitely get it! Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    • Pizzi
      Pizzi says:

      I know that’s crazy right? They can take over an area so fast. And I’ve eaten it before it’s pretty tasty if cooked right!

      Reply
  10. Sierra
    Sierra says:

    I believe that it is important to take care of our reefs and our underwater eco-system. However I feel as if there has got to be another option for taking care of the lion fish problem. If you go with the first option you would have to specify where to get the lion fish from because otherwise they might get the fish from its original habitat and harm that eco-system. If you go with the second option and introduce more unknown fish into the ecosystem that could lead to even worse problems.

    Reply
    • Pizzi
      Pizzi says:

      The first option is to remove the lionfish from the Atlantic, we should never introduce other invasive species to solve the problem 👍

      Reply
  11. Thomas Sanderson
    Thomas Sanderson says:

    honestly, didnt know any of this until now so thank you for educating me. Next time I see lionfish on the menu I’ll make sure I order it. They are very beautiful fish though so it’s a shame for them to overpopulate the area like that!

    Reply
  12. Besties Notepad
    Besties Notepad says:

    Never thought a fish could do so much damage..this is very new to me!
    Thanks for enlightening us all..nice article!

    Reply
  13. David Elliott
    David Elliott says:

    That’s so wild. Some guy importing their own fish got tired of the lion fish they got and released it into the wild and that wreaked havoc on the population. One would think that Evolution would take care of this at some point, creating another fish to help take care of the lionfish.

    Reply
    • Pizzi
      Pizzi says:

      At one point I think is the key, since these ecosystems evolved over such a long period of time, an instant shock like this could take a very long time to recover!

      Reply
  14. claire
    claire says:

    I love how they look, their details! But I can’t believe that one small fish can do drastic damage. That’s really unfortunate. In the past, I have read about few plants or fish like lionfish that causes a big impact within the ocean or even to people in a bad way. It’s just interesting to find out about them.

    Reply
  15. Ali Rost
    Ali Rost says:

    This is crazy .. I’ve never heard of the lion fish or any of the havoc it’s wreaking on our underwater eco systems. I also didn’t realize there other fish that wouldn’t eat it because they didn’t really know they could .. I’ve never heard of such thing. Thank-you so much for raising awareness. It’s amazing how much damage one unfortunate decision can create.

    Reply
  16. Angie Rose
    Angie Rose says:

    I have some home aquariums, so I’ve known a little bit about this. I didn’t know about it in such detail though. I can’t believe they have caused so much damage. How awful!

    Reply
  17. Catvills
    Catvills says:

    Same thing happened here. We have a beautiful lake where Trevally (Jack/Cavalia) thrive. But then some fish farmer started to breed large catfish in fish pens. Unfortunately, some escaped and, well, you know how it ends. How sad that there are some people who mindlessly disrupt an ecosystem for their own financial benefit.

    Reply
  18. Ana De- Jesus
    Ana De- Jesus says:

    I am a vegetarian so I am not sure how I would feel about killing lionfish but at the same time I want to ensure we have a happy planet and the reef does not become endangered. It is certainly a tricky dilemma for me to ponder.

    Reply
    • Pizzi
      Pizzi says:

      It certainly is! It’s really not the lionfish’s fault, but our reefs are too important to let them go unchecked!

      Reply
  19. Mal
    Mal says:

    But they look so adorable, its such a shame they are destructive. And it’s so typical that disasters like that happen because of humans!

    Reply
    • Pizzi
      Pizzi says:

      Adorable hahaha? I don’t think any marine animals would agree with that! They sure are beautiful creatures. Thanks for reading Mal!

      Reply
  20. Kim
    Kim says:

    I had no idea Lion Fish were such a huge problem, a lot of the local restaurants here serve them and I know a lot of the fishermen eat them, I’d just never realised there was such a good reason to eat them…I’ve had one go for me while diving before which was pretty scary, luckily my instructor got to him before he got to me!

    Reply
  21. alittlechinwag
    alittlechinwag says:

    Wow! This is an unfortunate situation, thank you for raising awareness about this issue. I myself don’t eat seafood as i’m allergic but I will certainly spread the word and I hope these lionfish will be brought under control!

    Reply
  22. Whitney aka Mrs. Millennial
    Whitney aka Mrs. Millennial says:

    Yes, have seen lots of lionfish when diving in the Carribean in recent years. I did discover an eco-resort in Belize on one trip where they encourage you to become a “reef protector” and go lionfish spear hunting! They also fry up lionfish, and actually it’s delicious to eat – we need to make it catch on so they’ll be in demand. More hunters/fishers going after them means better control of the species!

    Reply
  23. Jana Carrero
    Jana Carrero says:

    Posts like this one are so interesting to me (as a child I was obsessed with marine life and still am to this day). As you said, the fault does not lie with the lionfish. It’s sad that it’s come to this, but Option 1 seems like a good idea. I’ve never tried it, but I’d be willing to order some lionfish at a restaurant for sure. Thanks for spreading awareness on this!

    Reply
  24. Made Adayasa
    Made Adayasa says:

    They look so adorable and attractive. I didn’t know that the lionfish course a damage . But this is the nature secret , a human can help by find the solution how to reduce the population of the destruction animal like lionfish

    Reply
  25. Mike Shugrhed
    Mike Shugrhed says:

    I think option 1 sounds the best course of action.
    I’ll ask our local fish and a chip shop if they will get the lion fish for us to eat.
    Thanks for raising awareness abt this 🙂

    Reply
  26. Via Bella
    Via Bella says:

    Wow! This is really cool! I live on the Atlantic and I had no clue about this! Thank you for sharing this! I am going to have my read this for a homeschool article. Such good stuff here.
    ~https://www.instagram.com/viabella.thebeautifullife/

    Reply
  27. C-Ludik
    C-Ludik says:

    I had no idea that the lionfish was an invasive specie until now ! And for sure, I bet many people don’t even know anything about this too. Unfortunately it’s a tragic story of humans disrupting an ecosystem. People introduce some new foreign species without realising the impact on the natural environment. Thanks for raising awareness !

    Reply
  28. Ty
    Ty says:

    Cape Eleuthera , made me think of musician Lenny Kravitz. He seems to have a big heart that cares for the environment and I believe he has a home in Eluthera and fishes there a lot. I will have to revisit and reread this article to decide what I would prefer be done. Sometimes we humans can tamper with things a bit too much versus just leaving things to their natural order. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  29. Penny
    Penny says:

    Wow! This is one really amazing post. I did not know that lion fish are poisonous let alone that they were a species that isn’t native to all regions. Sure they look pretty but reefs are really important. People don’t understand the need to conserve natural balance.

    Reply
  30. Isadora Koller
    Isadora Koller says:

    This is completely new for me! When I first read the title “Lionfish Invasion” I even got happy because I love Lionfishes, but I never imagined they were such a threat in this side of the globe! Poor little creatures, the fault lays on humans…as most of the times!

    Reply
  31. Sherrie Fabrizi Allbritten
    Sherrie Fabrizi Allbritten says:

    Great article! I was not aware of any of this! I live in Florida and only eat fish (no meat or chicken) but unfortunately I never see Lionfish on a menu. Is it a simple white tasting fish? I will talk with a few of restaurants in my area too 🙂

    Reply
  32. Ilana
    Ilana says:

    It is a very interesting and scientifically elaborated post! I didn’t know anything about lion fish and it makes me interested to check out more about it! Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  33. Swati
    Swati says:

    I had not realized the extent of harm invasive species can do to the natural ecosystem of a place. Glad to hear that there are organizations that work towards minimizing the damage done. Were you serious about culling though ?

    Reply
  34. Suma - Tales of travelling sisters
    Suma - Tales of travelling sisters says:

    I do not have much knowledge about thee Lion Fish but reading your article I have to say the issue is of major concern to the ecosystem. And yes us humans are equally responsible for the problem as much as these species. Hope they find a solution to this soon.

    Reply
  35. Ana Ojha
    Ana Ojha says:

    What an interesting read! I should admit that I had no idea about it! I’ve seen Lion Fish only at Sea World, Orlando but this post is quite an eye-opener!

    Reply

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