Coral reefs provide many ecological and economical benefits to our world, but are in danger of extinction due to invasive lionfish that originally inhabit the Indian and South Pacific Oceans and the Red Sea. Lionfish became invasive to Atlantic waters after being imported to the tropics for aquariums and subsequently being deposited into waterways due to their eventual size and dominance. They have no natural predators in these waters and are thusly becoming rapidly overpopulated and depleting resources, out-competing every other native fish in the Western Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea and wreaking havoc on the ecosystem ecologically, environmentally and economically.
The invasive species breed faster than native fish, with individual females laying around two million eggs each year. Highly resistant to disease and infection, they have a high chance of survival to adulthood and can live up to two decades. They have a voracious buffet-style appetite, not limited to any individual type of fish. They are carnivorous and can consume fish up to twice their size, with stomachs expanding up to 30 times their normal volume. This excessive diet has had a drastically negative impact on the coral reef systems in the West Atlantic and Gulf Coast. A single lionfish is capable of consuming 80 percent of the young reef fish on small coral reefs within just five weeks of establishing its territory. Unfortunately, these abundant snacks happen to be commercially, recreationally and ecologically important. The cleaner fish, for example, are central to lowering disease and death rates among other essential species and maintaining coral reef algae at levels that will allow enough sunlight in for the reefs to, in turn, produce most of the world’s oxygen.
As a direct result of the ecological toll, the destruction of these natural structures poses an economic threat for the 42 million people in the Western Atlantic Basin that make their living from coral reefs. If lionfish remain unchecked, coral reef decimation is a sure outcome and will dramatically alter our environment and economy for the worse.
What can be done?
- Protecting predator populations and allowing for their recovery is the most natural solution to the lionfish invasion. Atlantic and Gulf Coast grouper have been discovered with remnants of undigested lionfish in their stomachs. Unfortunately, grouper are severely overfished. Avoid consuming grouper when possible, (also frequently labeled “sea bass” or “mero”).
- Hunting, fishing and trapping are currently a very effective means of controlling the explosive lionfish population, as the natural predator population is not presently of consequential numbers. First aid for stings and safe handling and disposal of the lionfish is essential.
- Consumption is one of the more celebrated means of impacting the population. The Bahamian “Eat ‘Em to Beat ‘Em” campaign advertises the fish as the “ultimate guilt-free eating: delicious, nutritious, and eco-conscious.” As it turns out, lionfish have higher concentrations of heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids than several of our traditional table-fish. They’re also low in heavy metals like mercury and lead. Although lionfish have venomous spines on their exterior, they are not poisonous and are entirely edible whether raw or cooked. Additionally, the meat is reportedly tasty, light, white and flakey.
- Tracking and monitoring the lionfish populations will aid in a more comprehensive understanding of their growth and future threat. Report sightings here: REEF.
- Support ocean conservation groups that conduct research and first-hand application of methods to control the species.
- Education is key. Finally, increasing common knowledge of invasive species, how they are introduced, and preventative methods will decrease the amount of negative future impact. Share information. Spread awareness.