The lionfish is posing a threat to marine ecosystems.
The lion is iconic in the animal kingdom as the “King of the Jungle.”
The lionfish, on the other hand, isn’t king of anything, but is currently making a concentrated effort to change that fact.
The invasive species, so named because of its mane of beautifully ornate – and viciously poisonous – dorsal fins, has recently become a topic of alarm for marine conservation scientists. In fact, lionfish are widely regarded as a huge threat to aquatic habitats. Thanks to their quick reproduction cycles, their voracious appetites, and their lack of natural predators, lionfish have been able to gain a hold on the western Atlantic Ocean and push native species out.
For years, efforts have been made to eliminate the near-parasitic spread of the lionfish and win back the tropical reefs of the Atlantic Ocean for the species that actually belong there. Thus far, most methods of controlling the lionfish problem have been moot.
The species are native to certain tropical areas of the Pacific Ocean, but were somehow introduced to the Atlantic Ocean a few years ago. Since then, various studies have presented a bleak outlook for the Atlantic’s native fish species. Fisheries along the east coast – as well as government environmental programs – have tried to encourage fishermen to catch or kill lionfish and even attempt to present the fish as a dining delicacy, so as to increase harvests.
Still, despite efforts to artificially manipulate lionfish populations in the Atlantic, the fish has expanded its reach, thanks mostly to the fact that it is essentially at the top of its own food chain. Studies have provided evidence that even sharks are powerless to curb the spread of lionfish, which use their venomous dorsal fins as the ultimate aquatic defense mechanism.
The same poisonous fins have likely scared away some professional fishermen. A sting from a lionfish is not normally lethal to humans, but the venom is certainly potent and can cause intense discomfort, difficulties with breathing, and nausea. With that said, the fish are still popular among aquarium owners, who view the unique beauty of the lionfish as a reason to display them as collector’s items of sorts.
So what can be done about lionfish? Can the invasive species be stopped or eliminated, or are smaller fish that are actually native to the Atlantic – such as certain types of grouper or snapper – doomed to be supplanted by these dangerous and predacious pests?
According to a study recently completed by Oregon State University, there may be hope yet for native Atlantic fish. The study – spearheaded by a marine ecologist named Stephanie Green – found that by removing specific numbers of lionfish from different sections of marine habitat, scientists should be able to allow native fish populations to bounce back and recover from the onslaught of their predators.
Of course, Oregon State’s proposed system involves even greater levels of artificial habitat control than before, and it still wouldn’t provide any permanent solution to the problem. In fact, Green believes that removing lionfish from the Atlantic may be impossible: it appears the predators are there to stay. However, the study found that simply removing small numbers of lionfish from different Atlantic reef habitats – whether by catching and capturing them or spearing and killing them – could help improve native fish numbers by 50 to 70 percent. That’s good news for the Atlantic fishing industry and environmental status quo.