What are lionfish?
Lionfish (genus Pterois)are a carnivorous, venomous fish native to the Indo-Pacific. They are know for their red, white, or cream bands, and have 18 needle-like dorsal spines that are used for defense. Although their stings are extremely painful for humans and can cause nausea and difficulty breathing, it is rarely fatal. They can grow to about 15in in length and can live anywhere from 5 to 15 years. Lionfish mostly prey on small fish and invertebrates, but will eat a wide variety of prey and are highly adaptable to new environments. Due to their exotic and eye-catching appearance, they are also a popular favorite in the aquarium trade worldwide.
When and how were they introduced in the United States?
It is widely believed that lionfish were introduced after a few specimens were released in South Florida following Hurricane Andrew in 1992. They have been spotted as far both as North Carolina, most likely thanks to travel along the Gulf Stream current, but they are physically unable to establish a population much further north due to the inability to adapt to colder winter temperatures.
Why are people so concerned about them? How can they hurt the reef?
With no natural predators and a voracious appetite, unchecked growth of lionfish populations could decimate numbers of native coral reef fish. They also compete for prey with commercially and culturally important fish such as grouper. Plus, more lionfish in Atlantic waters means an increase rate of stings- something no tourist or local wants to hear.
How are they being controlled?
Unfortunately, many scientists believe that complete eradication of lionfish is impossible. They can, however, be controlled. Research is being conducting all throughout the US Southern Atlantic coast and the Caribbean ocean to determine the effects of lionfish presence on the ecosystem. Many Caribbean islands have legalized spearfishing for lionfish, and you can catch lionfish without a permit in Florida. Lionfish derbies, or large fishing competitions where prizes are awarded for bringing in large numbers of the fish, have popped up all over Florida and the Caribbean. Bermuda even enacted a strict ban on the importation of live fish to try and prevent another invasion.
What can I do to help?
Get informed and spread the word! The more people are aware of the invasion, the better. If traveling in lionfish-infested areas, support chefs and restaurants that serve lionfish on their menus. And as always, choose to purchase seafood that is sustainable and healthy for the environment (for which fish to eat and avoid, check out the Sustainable Seafood Guide). You can also support organizations working to control lionfish populations, such as The Lionfish Hunters.