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Lionfish Invade Reefs

A great photo op but a greater potential disaster
By Rhonda Claridge • Photos by Kay Politano

lionfish in the waters of abaco bahamasIt may be lovely to look at, but the red lionfish (Pterois volitans) that has come to live in Abaco waters recently is a devastating invader of the Western Atlantic Ocean. They pose such a threat to the fisheries and marine life of their new habitat, that one scientist warns they “could very well become the most disastrous marine invasion in history.”

All feathery fins and camouflaging stripes, the foot-long lionfish is a voracious and efficient predator. In its native domain, the coral reefs of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, it attacks at night, patiently singling out a small fish or shrimp, then sucking down its prey in an instant. As defense, the lionfish injects venom into any intruder, human or otherwise, that comes into contact with the quills on its fins, located 360 degrees around its body. For humans, the typical effect is serious but temporary and non-life-threatening pain, but the more serious, long-term ramifications of the lionfish in its Atlantic habitat are becoming painfully evident.

Dr. Mark Hixon, a professor of marine conservation biology at Oregon State University, who has been studying the biodiversity of coral-reef ecosystems in the Bahamas since the early 1990s, provides a grim list of possibilities: “There may be less food fish for people as lionfish consume juvenile grouper and snapper. There may be fewer grazing fish, which help to keep corals from being overgrown by algae, and there may be fewer large predators, which have been shown to help stabilize fish populations, as lionfish eat their young.” Based on the findings of a recent study that he and graduate student Mark Albins conducted, Hixon explained in an online NBC discussion recently that “a single lionfish can reduce the input of new fish to a small coral patch reef in the Bahamas by 80 percent in just five weeks. As we continue our studies, it is becoming clear that the spread and intensity of this invasion is both unprecedented and staggering.”

Where did these foreign invaders come from? The source is believed to be an aquarium that dumped as few as six individual fish into Biscayne Bay, Florida, in 1992 during Hurricane Andrew. With no natural predators in the Atlantic, and a host of unsuspecting prey, the lionfish have prospered, reproducing and dispersing at an astounding rate. From Bermuda to North Carolina and as far south as Jamaica and possibly the Lesser Antilles, and, most recently, Columbia, Belize and Mexico, lionfish are now ubiquitous. Since their first reported sighting in the Bahamas in 2004, they have become “widespread and abundant throughout the archipelago,” according to Nicola Smith, research assistant at College of the Bahamas’s Marine and Environmental Studies Institute. Abaco’s scuba and snorkeling operators have watched the proliferation with alarm.

lionfish in abaco bahamas“Three years ago we knew the location of one lionfish in the Sea of Abaco,” relates Kay Politano, owner of Above and Below Abaco. “It was quite a novelty. We were impressed with its beauty and stillness; a perfect subject for photography. But within two short years we were finding up to 30 lionfish inhabiting nearly every log or piece of junk in the Sea of Abaco. We are now seeing at least one lionfish during every dive at Fowl Cay. They hide in small crevasses and under rocks, making them hard to see. When we do see one, the probability is there are many more.”

In June 2007, the Bahamian government and COB launched the Bahamas National Lionfish Response Project (NLRP), calling for reports of sightings nationwide. By August 2007, the project had received 207 reports of lionfish in 13 island groups. When the NLRP set out artificial marine habitats, lionfish inhabited them within three days. The pervasive fish has been found in ocean depths between four and 250 feet in the Bahamas, and in a variety of habitats and locales, including reefs, docks, beaches, and coastal mangroves.

Of greatest concern is the lionfish’s appetite for juvenile fish and crustaceans. Dr. Hixon and his graduate students witnessed one lionfish that ate 20 juvenile fish in 30 minutes. Unfortunately, the invasive fish does not discriminate and will eat grouper, snapper, lobsters and other marine life not only crucial to the Bahamas fishing industry, but to the survival of native marine ecosystems as well. Sharks and grouper have been documented with lionfish in their stomachs, but as their populations continue to be hard hit from fishing, they are unlikely to balance the ecological scales now tipped to advantage this invader. The only hope may be another dominating and high-consuming predator: Homo sapien.

Lionfish are not only edible by humans, they are, in fact, quite tasty. According to the Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation, which urges Bahamians to “Go green – eat lionfish!” the colorful but dangerous creature is “sold as a food fish in the Pacific region.” There are even rumors from Asia that eating lionfish is an aphrodisiac.

Wearing thick gloves while handling the fish prevents punctures from its venomous quills. Once all of its fins have been cut
off, it can be filleted like any other fish.

Its venom becomes harmless when it is cooked. Filleted or pan-fried whole, the lionfish tastes – you guessed it - like chick-en. Abaco’s Friends of the Environment and the Bahamas National Trust hosted a presentation in Marsh Harbour last summer at which Alexander Maillis of Nassau demonstrated how to handle, clean, and cook lionfish. As the FRIENDS newsletter later reported: “Mr. Maillis gave us something to ponder when he informed the crowd that the fish he was cleaning were a portion of the 124 lionfish he had speared the previous day. Those 124 lionfish were caught within two hours in a one-mile radius off of the South Western side of New Providence.”

lionfish in abaco bahamasThe newsletter continues, “…Mr. Maillis removed a juvenile fish, fully intact, from the stomach of a lionfish which was just slightly larger than the juvenile it had swallowed.”

Lionfish are fairly easy to spear or to catch with a dip net. Fishermen have been encountering lionfish in their crawfish
“condominiums,” or traps, and spearing them over the past two years.

“During this past summer, the reefs at Fowl Cay were relatively free of these fish, thanks to Troy Albury from Dive Guana,” says Kay Politano. “Everytime we saw one on the reef, we called Troy to the rescue.

He did the spearing!”

The Department of Marine Resources aims “…to encourage the use of these fish as a food source, and even to sell them once the spines have been removed,” according to Director Michael Braynen. Hixon hopes that the Bahamas government will “actively promote local controls, possibly including a targeted fishery and even bounties.” Even these efforts, though, will not eliminate all lionfish. “Unfortunately,” Hixon says, “they can live to a depth of at least several hundred feet, which is beyond the range of most divers.”

Lionfish do not attack humans. Injury generally occurs by accidentally stepping on one, or handling them without gloves, although it is also possible to be “spined” without any venom being injected. In rare cases, however, the venom can result in seizures, pulmonary edema, or congestive heart failure, but, according to Smith, there have been no documented fatalities in the Bahamas. Tingling, blistering, and experiencing acute pain are the common reac-tions. As treatment, experts recommend applying very hot water and seeking medical assistance.

To learn more about this invasive species and its impacts on the aquatic Bahamas, the Department of Marine Resources and COB’s Marine and Environmental Studies Institute are collecting fresh or frozen specimens and can be contacted at (242) 302-4413. To report lionfish sightings, go online to www.breef.org. To watch Mr. Maillis’ demonstration of how to clean and cook lionfish, visit www.loggerheadfilms.com/lionfish.html. The U.S. Geological Survey also maintains an up-to-date map of the spread of the invasion which can be accessed on-line at nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/ FactSheet.asp?speciesID=963.

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