HARMFUL LIONFISH ARRIVES ON THE TREASURE COASTBY CAMILLE S. YATES
What’s bold and beautiful, but bad for the Indian River Lagoon and the adjacent offshore waters? One answer is the lionfish. Normally found in the western Pacific, the predator has invaded the eastern Atlantic like a swarm of locusts in a cornfield. And this invasion is no more welcome.
Scientists have documented that this stunningly handsome creature is eating so many native reef fish on Florida’s east coast that some reefs are left with no life at all. Both the ecological and economic impacts of this exotic import are alarming.
In July, researchers at the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce discovered a juvenile lionfish lurking in the estuarine waters of the Indian River Lagoon. SMS Research Assistant Sherry Reed, along with Drs. Mark and Diane Littler of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, were collecting algae samples in the lagoon just north of the Fort Pierce inlet. “There was an incoming tide and the water was just beautiful,” says Reed. “It was a perfect day, since we had found a gorgeous area of tunicates, sponges, and blue green algae, but then the Littlers spotted the lionfish.”
Reed has seen lionfish in the Pacific off New Guinea. “They can get to be quite large, but this one was small, about 9 inches,” she says. Later that day, Rob Bowman of the Smithsonian Marine Ecosystems Exhibit collected that fish. Two days later, he collected three more. “It was very disconcerting to see them in the lagoon,” Reed says. “And the fish was very brazen when we approached it — no fear at all.”
Unhappily, lionfish are taking over many offshore reefs. A member of the scorpion fish family, it can now be found from as far north as Massachusetts to as far south as Mexico and Panama. Research ecologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration determined that no other fish has colonized habitat so quickly and over such a large range.
How did the lionfish get so far from its native territory? Because its appearance is so striking, it became a popular item in the aquarium trade. Some suspect that during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 many homes and aquariums were exposed to the elements, freeing the lionfish to escape into Florida’s waters.
Marine biologist Mark Hixon and a team from Oregon State University are trying to determine how damaging the effects of the lionfish may be. On a small section of a Caribbean reef, they watched one eat 20 small fish in 30 minutes. Other studies indicate that lionfish consume vast quantities of popular commercial fish such as grouper and snapper. Because the lionfish has no known predators in its new territory, and because it is such a ravenous feeder, the interloper is threatening populations of native fish that are important to Florida’s economy.
And the lionfish poses a threat to more than other reef organisms. Outfitted with 18 extremely venomous, camouflaged spines, it can wreak havoc on humans. A person punctured by one of the sharp spines will immediately feel severe pain. It can be followed by nausea, breathing difficulties, paralysis, convulsions and collapse. Some victims will die.
Nothing can be done to eliminate lionfish populations along Florida’s coast, but harvesting them can soften their damaging impacts. Although their spines carry venom, their flesh is fine to eat. Because of this, lionfish rodeos are cropping up along the east coast. So gather up your nets, spears and frying pans and reduce the population. Help slow the destruction of our treasured resources, the Indian River Lagoon and the offshore reefs.
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