Why Are Lionfish Here Anyway?
Lionfish are not native to Florida or the Caribbean at all. This species of fish is native to the Indo-Pacific Region. At some point, however, they made the leap and are now well established along the southeast coast of the US, the Caribbean and in parts of the Gulf of Mexico. How did they arrive? The exact cause is not known and most likely never be definitively determined. There are theories that suggest they could have been transported in the bilge of ships. Another commonly held theory is that they were released from aquariums, or fish hobbyists. It is believed that this happened in the late 1980’s. Their population and strangle hold on local ecosystems becoming exponentially bigger ever since.
Why Are They A Problem?
Because lionfish are not native in the Atlantic Ocean, they have no known predators. They are carnivores and they feed on small crustaceans and fish. They are very indiscriminate predators, in that they consume more than 70 different species of fish and invertebrates such as shrimp and crab.
It is estimated that when a lionfish population first comes upon a reef, that the juvenile fish populations on that reef will be reduced by up to 90% in only 5 weeks. There have been lionfish found with as many as 30 fish in their stomach. Lionfish also can be found in quite deep waters as well as very shallow waters, which means they are affecting many eco-systems in ways which we are still yet to fully understand. Furthermore, lionfish are very fast at becoming capable of reproduction. It takes less than 1 year for a lionfish to reach the reproductive stage. They also can reproduce at alarming rates. With reproduction happening as often as every 4 days throughout the year. A single female lionfish can spawn over 2 million eggs per year.
Unfortunately, NOAA researchers have determined that invasive lionfish populations will continue growing and will not be eliminated using conventional methods. Marine invaders are nearly impossible to eliminate once they have reached the population and spread of the current lionfish population.
What Can Be Done?
It may seem all doom and gloom, but there are a lot of people out there who are actively trying to stop or atleast slow down the invasion. Groups such as the Lionfish University are working tirelessly to help with the cause. They are working directly with the NOAA on inexpensive traps which may be able to help to economically catch a large number of lionfish.
On a personal level as a diver you have a greater opportunity and a more vested interest in helping than the average citizen. As they continue to destroy fish populations and change the habitat of our reefs, our dive sites will certainly suffer. Joining a lionfish derby can help control the population in a particular area or dive site. Doing things such as ordering lionfish on the menu when you are going out for lunch or dinner can also be a large help as it creates the incentive and economic reason for more divers to catch more of this particular species. Finally, you could always find an organization which is helping to lead the fight against lionfish and donate.