The lionfish is an invasive species making its way more and more into American coastal waters.
You’ve probably seen them here and there, at the state aquarium or in a fish tank in a restaurant or hotel.
Around 18 inches in length, these beautiful tropical fish are known for their reddish stripes and beautiful, mane-like, venomous spines. Native to the western Pacific Ocean, they should be the sort of creature most Americans only see on vacation.
More on the Lionfish
However, since the mid 1980s, they have begun invading the Caribbean, Atlantic, and the Gulf of Mexico.
Native to Indo-Pacific waters, lionfish were found far from home off the Florida coast 20 years ago. Likely released from a personal aquarium, they spread up the Eastern seaboard and down to the Caribbean.
How did they get here?
Lionfish have been appearing in the South Atlantic since 1985, reaching as far west as eastern Louisiana. Experts suspect that the origin of the infestation came from well meaning aquarium owners who, ignorant of the dangers their pets posed to the ecosystem, released their lionfish into the wild.
Last year, the first documented Lionfish along the Texas coast was found in Corpus Christi and identified by the Texas State Aquarium. More still have invaded the Packery Channel, a popular fishing spot for Padre Island and ground zero for the invasion in Texas.
What’s the impact?
Lionfish are the perfect invasive species. Keeping close to reefs, natural and manmade, and debris such as sunken ships and abandoned oil platforms, lionfish are predators who will eat everything they can.
Worse still, they reproduce at alarming speeds and have no natural predators to control the population. Areas with lionfish infestations have recorded a significant drop in native fish populations, to the detriment of the ecosystem and anglers alike.
Unlike many other species, their growth shows no signs of slowing down. Like a virus, they promise to wreak havoc on their environment until it is stripped bare of its natural resources.
Check out this video from the BBC Earth YouTube channel, which goes more in-depth on the situation.
Though they do not pose a threat to casual beachgoers, lionfish are dangerous. Aggressive and venomous, they have no problem stinging scuba divers and any unwitting anglers who catch them.
The venom of a lionfish is extremely painful, and known to cause nausea, vomiting, fever, breathing difficulty, convulsions, dizziness, temporary paralysis, and even heart failure in its victims.
What can we do?
Though the lionfish has no natural predators in coastal waters, there is still one fierce adversary that can take it out: humans. In the Florida Keys and Green Turtle Cay, Bahamas, eager participants compete in one-day derbies for the purpose of catching and killing as many lionfish as possible.
In Florida, there are special license requirements and bag limits to participate, while in Texas anglers are unlimited in how many they can catch.
In many Caribbean countries, otherwise illegal methods for fishing are permitted if the angler can prove he or she is going after the menacing lionfish.
The question remains, though. What do they do once they’ve caught them? As it turns out, the lionfish is not only safe to eat once its poisonous spines are removed, it’s a delicious new delicacy. While many in the state Parks and Wildlife commissions try to train local predators like groupers and eels to recognize lionfish as food, citizens are encouraged to drive up the demand to fish them by adding them to their diets.
So the next time you go out for sushi, consider trying a lionfish roll. It’s a delicious way to save the ecosystem!