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The Otherworldly Lionfish

In the late 1990s research divers began observing an Indo-pacific species of lionfish near shipwrecks off the Carolina coast. Darryl and Trish Boyer saw a lionfish on the stern section of the wreck of the Naeco, 40 miles offshore. The two photographed the first lionfish on August 10 2000.

After they surfaced from their first dive, they were given a camera to bring back proof of their sighting on the second dive. Later the photos were verified by Bob Jones of the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores and the photo confirmed to be that of a lionfish. Divers have since observed lionfish at other near-shore sites. It is speculated that the root of the problem were six lionfish accidentally released from a private aquarium during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Officials are concerned because lionfish are not native to the southeastern United States and its venomous spines are dangerous to humans.

The native range of the lionfish is the Indo-Pacific region, including Western Australia and Malaysia, north to southern Japan.

The fish is distinctively red, marked by white stripes. Fleshy tentacles reach above the eyes and below the mouth.

The common name of these creatures is red lionfish; the scientific name is Pterois volitans.

Experts speculate that people have been dumping unwanted lionfish from home aquariums into the Atlantic Ocean for 25 years. However dire the outlook may be for local waters, it’s far worse in the Caribbean and the Bahamas, where cold-water restrictions on a variety of fish don’t apply. Those regions now face the prospect of losing entire reefs and possibly much of their tourism economy.

As much as 97% of the lionfish diet is composed of small fish. The impact has been nothing short of catastrophic since lionfish eliminate entire communities of marine life, an effect likened to the spread of kudzu. Lionfish are also breeding machines. One female lionfish can produce two million eggs in one year.

Invasive marine organisms enter new areas of the ocean. James Morris of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Labs has commented: “We live in a global marketplace. You look at the transport of goods all over the world, and there are plenty of pathways that can wreak havoc in many ways in terms of the transfer of organisms.”

In recent years, we have heard about the accidental introduction of zebra mussels into the Great Lakes; kudzu all over the countryside and the likes of leaping carp in our rivers.

A lionfish’s venom is used for defensive purposes only. Instead of using venom for prey, lionfish rely on camouflage, which they combine with exceptional speed.

Lionfish are highly adaptable to new marine environments. They compete for prey with commercially significant fish such as grouper.

The journey of lionfish into the Caribbean Basin has been the most impressive invasion anywhere of any marine creature. The reason for their success in the Caribbean is due to their omnivorous appetite and hunting strategies. Lionfish will eat anything up to half the size of their own body. At risk are sea urchins, crabs, shrimp, mollusks and all members of the conch family.

The deepest confirmed sighting of a lionfish was at 1,000ft in the Bahamas. Lionfish have similarities to the Burmese python; the ravenous snake that researchers say is decimating native mammal populations in the Everglades and Caribbean. Both are fast-breeding invasive species likely introduced through the pet trade.

Though it causes excruciating pain, the wound inflicted by a lionfish is seldom lethal to humans. The venom is a protein-based neurotoxin that can be broken down by immersing the wounded area in hot water (110-113 degrees Fahrenheit) for 40 minutes. Fortunately, it’s not nearly as potent as the venom of other members of the scorpion fish family. Its relative, the reef stonefish, is considered the deadliest fish in the sea; victims reportedly die within hours.

If there’s any check to the invasion, it may be that lionfish are sensitive to cold. Lionfish can’t survive at temperatures below 50F and many inshore waters typically drop below that in winter. They’re limited to depths of around 100 feet. That would place the northern limit of their survival range around Cape Hatteras.

One suggestion for dealing with the lionfish problem is to eat them. Why not? The flesh is firm and white. Once the venomous spines have been removed, you can, supposedly, treat a lionfish like any other good tasting fish. Lionfish are, it is said, excellent fried, blackened and sautéed.

But wait: efforts to market the fish face a significant hurdle. Recent tests have revealed that some lionfish samples tested positive for the toxin that causes ciguatera, a type of food poisoning often found in reef fish. For that reason, the FDA recommends against eating lionfish. Oh well, not all creatures have a silver lining.

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