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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Sea Things #7: Lionfish

Sea Things is a regular feature on my blog where I profile a different sea creature. Look for it weekly, or something close to weekly.

Lionfish are just terribly beautiful.  They have gorgeous spines and stripes and even before I was a scuba diver, they were one of my favorite fishes.  All of that beauty does come with a couple of problems, though: first off, they're incredibly poisonous.  Touching them doesn't usually lead to death, but can make you feel pretty horrible for a while.  The other issue is that they don't belong in the Caribbean, so we never should have seen 8-10 of them in Turks & Caicos.

First, a little about the fish.  Like I said, they're not native to the Caribbean, but to the Pacific.  They can vary in size, but can be 30-35 cm in length.  The big one pictured here was the largest that we saw in Turks & Caicos (on Le Dome in Provo), and he was about a foot long, maybe a little longer.  In general, while they're poisonous, they're not aggressive toward divers (although some message boards have reported Lionfish attacking divers on night dives).  I was able to get pretty close to the big one in Provo, and he just floated there, not even really moving besides in surge/current.  Touching one can lead to extreme pain, headaches, vomiting, and breathing difficulties.  Just generally a severe reaction that people would likely try to avoid.

The sign for a Lionfish is to thread your fingers together, and hold them in front of you.

Lionfish have been known to eat many, many fish.  They breed very quickly and easily, and this has been the main problem with them invading the Caribbean and Atlantic.  This means lots of Lionfish suddenly eating lots of other fish.  Many have questioned why this is a problem, since it's obviously not a problem in the Indo-Pacific.  The issue is that Caribbean fish don't recognize Lionfish as a threat, and therefore just sit there around them while the Lionfish gobbles them up.  In addition, Lionfish don't have natural predators in the Caribbean, so nothing is killing them besides divers.  Some have said that Groupers will eat Lionfish, but I've heard that this isn't necessarily true.  Even if it were, the Grouper population has been decimated by overfishing (another reason not to eat Grouper!).

So, where did the Lionfish come from?  Well, no one is entirely sure.  As it turns out, DNA tests have shown that while there are many, many species of Lionfish in the Pacific, there are only 3 in the Caribbean / Atlantic.  And, all Lionfish tested have descended from the same 6 or 7 Lionfish.  So, the first speculation was that an aquarium in Miami released them when it was hit by Hurricane Andrew.  Another speculation is that home aquarists grew tired of Lionfish eating the other fish in the aquarium, and they released them into the ocean.

I heard a totally  new theory while we were in Little Cayman, when we attended a presentation by the Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI).  CCMI believes that Lionfish were spread into Caribbean waters by the Atlantis: Paradise Island resort.  Basically, Atlantis has a giant aquarium, which has many species of fish in it.  The method of keeping the water fresh in the aquarium is to flush the water out into the Caribbean, then bring in fresh sea water so that water is constantly cycling in and out.  Well, what happens is that Lionfish spawn in the tanks, and then the eggs (as many as 20,000 at a time) go out into the wild.  It sounds as though this is becoming the number one reason that Lionfish have come to the Caribbean, and why they're so prolific in the Bahamas.  That one presentation meant that Atlantis: Paradise Island went from a place that Todd and I were considering going, to a place that we are now boycotting.  As far as I know, the Lionfish are still there.

The fish are spawning so fast, that it is really difficult to do anything about the problem.  In Turks and Caicos, it definitely seemed that nothing was being done.  In the Bahamas, the government is trying to encourage fishermen to catch them and wipe out the population that way (You can even find some Lionfish Recipes online).  In the Caymans, they know that the fish are spreading too quickly, so divers are encouraged to watch for them and report sightings so that they can be collected and destroyed.  Hopefully, this will help slow the rate of growth, since it definitely isn't enough to stop them.

REEF's Lionfish Program

Is there a creature that you would like to see featured in Sea Things? If so, shoot me an email and if I can, I'll write about it.

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