“The decline and loss of coral reefs has significant social, cultural, economic and ecological impacts on people and communities throughout the world. As the “rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs provide economic services — jobs, food and tourism — estimated to be worth as much as $375 billion each year” (NOAA). They also provide storm protection to coastal communities, and medicines that fight inflammatory diseases, heart diseases, and cancer.
While climate change, pollution, and unsustainable fishing practices are the greatest threats our reefs face today, additional threats do exist. Since the 1980’s, United States and Caribbean reefs have been under attack from a foreign threat.
Pterois volitans, more commonly known as the lionfish, is a species of fish native to the Indo-Pacific region of the world. They are a visually appealing species, growing up to 18 inches (46 centimeters) with dazzling stripes and magnificent venomous spines that ward off predators and resemble a lion’s mane. Their unique appearance creates popularity and demand in the aquarium trade. The venom contained in their spines is not considered fatal to humans, however one sting from a spine causes extreme pain and swelling that can last for days. Their beauty and relatively slow swimming speed conceal the fact that they are voracious hunters that feed on a wide variety of reef fish and crustaceans. If you do happen to come in contact with their spines, immediately abort the dive, remove any watches, rings, or bracelets near the point of contact, soak the wound in hot water, and seek medical attention.
Scientists believe the first lionfish in the Atlantic were released in the waters off of Florida after being imported for aquariums, which turned out to be a catastrophic mistake. Since then, they have spread as far north as Rhode Island, all throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, and as far south as Brazil. They have even been documented at depths of 1,000 feet (300 meters). The problem is, since they are foreign, no native species in the Atlantic consider lionfish prey, allowing them to go unchecked wreaking havoc on the reef hierarchy and food chain for up to 30 years. Exacerbating the problem, lionfish reproduce year-round after they reach one year of age. A single female can release 50,000 eggs every time she breeds, which can potentially be as often as every three days. In addition to their reproduction cycles, their appetites are equally dangerous. Scientists have discovered over 100 different species of reef fish contained in the stomachs of dissected individuals.
The bottom line is lionfish are here to stay in the Atlantic. It would be impossible to completely eradicate the species from such a wide range and deep depths. However, there is hope. Studies in Florida and The Bahamas have shown that if the majority of the lionfish are removed from a shallow reef, fish populations rebound fairly quick. As more people gain awareness of the threat they impose on reefs, more people head out to hunt them. Some coastal communities hold hunting derbies with prizes for the most, largest, and smallest lionfish captured. Several grocery stores and seafood markets in Florida have started selling lionfish to meet the increasing demand. Engineers have started designing lionfish hunting machines that are efficient at locating and culling the threat. On some reefs, sharks, large groupers, and moray eels have started eating lionfish provided by divers, which on one hand teaches them to eat an invasive species, but on the other hand teaches them to associate humans with food. I personally experienced this when I was chased by a green moray eel on the reefs of Roatan, Honduras.
Unfortunately, the story of the lionfish invasion is a tragic one. Yes, lionfish damage native reef fish populations in the United States and Caribbean, but the fault does not lie with them. They did not swim across oceans to get here and invade coral reef ecosystems. Humans introduced them to this region, so we as a species are accountable. The lionfish are simply surviving, and thriving, in the new environment they were forced into. These delicate marine ecosystems developed over thousands of years, and humans possess the ability to disrupt them in an instant. However, we also have the ability to reverse some of the damage we have done. Removing lionfish from the Atlantic is the most direct way to mitigate damages. People can also create demand by consuming lionfish, and encouraging local seafood restaurants to add lionfish to their menu.
History is important. Hopefully we learn a valuable lesson from the lionfish invasion so we can avoid similar ecological disasters in the future. With enough effort in the fight against invasive species, in addition to other issues including climate change and overfishing, many of our reefs could recover.
What are your thoughts?
Author: Michael Pizzi – www.vibesandhorizons.com