Lionfish are native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans; however it is believed that a small number of them were introduced into the Pacific in the South Florida area in the 1980’s by pet owners. DNA testing indicates that all lionfish in the Atlantic are descendants of six to eight females. However, the fish reproduce quickly, with females laying 30,000 to 40,000 eggs at a time, for a total of about 2 million a year from the time they are a year old.
In addition to the lack of natural predators, and their considerable reproductive abilities, lionfish are voracious eaters, with some specimens that have been found overfeeding to such an extent that they show signs of liver disease because of it. Their diet consists of up to 70% of the species in the habitats they have taken over.
Lionfish is considered to be a delicious dish, and as an added benefit it is also relatively low in fat, which makes it a healthy food as well. While many restaurants will prepare lionfish when available, there is currently not much supply in the market of this particular species. Formerly, lionfish could be caught with ease with hooks and nets; however, they seem to have adapted to such methods, and can now more commonly be found at depths of 200 to 300 feet.
The depth to which the lionfish have moved has complicated efforts to reduce their population, as they are now most often caught either with lobster traps, or by divers spearing them. This makes it difficult for commercial fishermen to reach the fish, as diving to 200 feet requires the use of rebreathers and other special equipment that would not be necessary in shallower waters.
Communities all over the Atlantic Ocean are taking steps to try to avert an ecological disaster by encouraging the fishing of the invasive species by trying to increase demand by consumers, and relaxing regulations concerning the catching of lionfish. In Florida, for example, the Reef Environmental Education Foundation has put out cookbooks of lionfish recipes, lists of restaurants that serve the fish, and hosted conferences on the invasion that even feature the sampling of lionfish dishes. In addition,the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has implemented temporary rules that do not require a license to catch lionfish, and remove limits on how many specimens can be caught.
Lionfish appear to be aware of their place in the higher echelons of the food chain, as divers have reported the fish do not seem alarmed when approached. The reason for this is that lionfish are covered with 18 venomous spines, which afford them the protection needed to eat as much as 90% of the fish in the reefs they compete with other species for. Despite this defense mechanism, the spines can be removed, and the fish eaten without any danger to consumers, in fact, the venom is destroyed by cooking.
Despite these efforts, there is great concern that the lionfish invasion could cause a disaster in the Atlantic Ocean, and studies are being conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of the measures currently in effect to limit the spread of this species.
By Milton Ruiz
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