Posted by Rick Civelli | 09.18.2012 | Marine Science

Invasion of the Lionfish

Soon to be showing up on a menu near you? Lionfish linguine? No one really knows how they got here, but the typically Indo-Pacific lionfish has jet-setted to the far flung reaches of the Caribbean and migrated as far north as Rhode Island. Known for its striking coloration and dramatic sail-like body form these ornamental fish are popular in salt water aquariums.  Unfortunately the uniqueness that makes them an impressive pet is also responsible for their extraordinary ability to overtake coastal environments.

In less than a decade, two species, Pterois volitans and Pterois miles (better known as the common and red lionfish) have become established along the southern U.S coastline. This impressive population explosion is credited to warming water temperatures as well as an unparalleled reproduction rates – a single female can produce over 2 million eggs in a single year.

The lionfish has no natural predators in the Atlantic or Caribbean. In fact studies that have tried to encourage local fish species to consume the fish, have inevitably failed… typically with the predator spitting out the distasteful fish. Lionfish have venomous spines, a menacing appearance, and voracious hunting habits (consuming 50+ species of fish) making them one the oceans most formidable species.

An unchecked lionfish invasion is of particular concern as these fish not only occupy the same trophic level as commercially valuable fish (i.e. grouper), but their aggressive feeding habits upset the balance of delicate reef ecosystems. As populations increase they may pose socioeconomic impacts in areas dependent on reef fish for commercial and tourism revenue.

Controlling the expansion of this species is being addressed in multiply ways.  National Ocean and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey are making a collaborative effort to track lionfish population densities and implement population management plans internationally. Some governments are promoting human consumption of lionfish meat. Which if handled and cleaned correctly poses no threat to humans, and is in fact quite tasty. Lionfish derbies have also been created. These events encourage trained divers to capture large numbers of lionfish inhabiting threatened areas. There is also a multi-regional government sponsored research program responsible for seeking out the best management initiatives.

Moving forward it will be critical to increase awareness of the negative impacts caused by this invasive species. Hopefully, in the long run, international cooperation and increased regulations will significantly reduce the environmental damage caused by the lionfish. Either that or a really tasty, popular recipe might do the trick.