To the fish they eat, lionfish do look a little like movie monsters
GALVESTON, Texas — It sounds like a horror movie: A beautiful species of fish sweeps into the Gulf of Mexico. But the fish has poisonous spines and a powerful appetite and gobbles up everything in its path.
Unfortunately for the native fish in the Gulf, the attack is very real.
Lionfish, a maroon-and-white striped native to the South Pacific, first showed up off the coast of southern Florida in 1985. Most likely, someone dumped a few out of a home fish tank. Since then, the fish have swept up the Eastern seaboard and down to the Bahamas.
Lionfish breed frequently and have no natural enemies. Thanks to that, they now are more common in the Bahamas than their home waters.
Too Many Of Them ...
“The invasive lionfish have been nearly a perfect predator,” says Martha Klitzkie. She works at the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) in Key Largo, Florida. “They’re moving into new areas and, when they get settled, the population increases pretty quickly.”
The lionfish population grew rapidly in the Florida Keys and the Bahamas between 2004 and 2010. Meanwhile, the number of native prey fish dropped. Some studies show that native prey fish in the Bahamas fell an average of 65 percent in just two years.
Lionfish first appeared in the western Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Scientists spotted them in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Garden Banks is a protected area about 100 miles off the Texas coast. Now scuba divers spot them nearly every time they explore a reef.
Michelle Johnston, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Galveston, says that there too many lionfish out there. To control their numbers is very difficult. "It's kind of this impossible battle."
Lionfish are interesting and beautiful. They grow to about 18 inches and have numerous venomous spines. Their stripes are like those of a zebra. They hang out near coral heads or underwater structures where reef fish flourish. There they wait for prey fish to draw near, then gulp them down in a flash.
The fish can begin making babies within one year. A single female can pump out 2 million eggs a year. Lionfish live about 15 years on average.
... And Eating Way Too Much
Predators and disease keep lionfish in check in the South Pacific. But the fish here don't like them as food. The few groupers that have been seen tasting lionfish have spit them back out.
But the lionfish eat almost anything. They eat fish half their own size. They’re eating so much, that scientists say some are getting too fat.
Lionfish can live almost anywhere in the water. They like little openings and holes. They find those places in coral heads, drilling platforms and sunken ships.
“As long as they have something to eat, they’ll be there,” Johnston says.
Scientists warn that too many lionfish can cause problems. In the Gulf, lionfish are eating fish species that keep the reefs clean.
“When you take fish away, coral gets smothered, the reef dies, and we lose larger fish," she says.
Humans To The Rescue?
The only known way to keep lionfish in check here is man, scientists say.
That’s why lionfish fishing tournaments are popping up around the Caribbean and the Gulf. Locals are encouraged to kill and gather the fish. In some places, including Belize, they cook them up.
Klitzkie at REEF says there's no way to get rid of all the lionfish. But their numbers can be controlled.
The tournaments have removed more than 12,000 lionfish since 2009.
Back in the Gulf, scientists like Johnston have special permits that allow them to remove lionfish from the Flower Garden Banks. But they need more help.
"It's really an uphill battle," she says. “The second you stop, they come back.”