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Study: Caribbean Lionfish Decimating Tropical Fish Populations, Threatens Coral Reefs; 'Voracious Predator'
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CORVALIS, Oregon -- The invasion of predatory lionfish in the Caribbean region poses yet another major threat there to coral reef ecosystems – a new study has found that within a short period after the entry of lionfish into an area, the survival of other reef fishes is slashed by about 80 percent.

Aside from the rapid and immediate mortality of marine life, the loss of herbivorous fish also sets the stage for seaweeds to potentially overwhelm the coral reefs and disrupt the delicate ecological balance in which they exist, according to scientists from Oregon State University.

Following on the heels of overfishing, sediment depositions, nitrate pollution in some areas, coral bleaching caused by global warming, and increasing ocean acidity caused by carbon emissions, the lionfish invasion is a serious concern, said Mark Hixon, an OSU professor of zoology and expert on coral reef ecology.

The study is the first to quantify the severity of the crisis posed by this invasive species, which is native to the tropical Pacific and Indian Ocean and has few natural enemies to help control it in the Atlantic Ocean. It is believed that the first lionfish – a beautiful fish with dramatic coloring and large, spiny fins – were introduced into marine waters off Florida in the early 1990s from local aquariums or fish hobbyists. They have since spread across much of the Caribbean Sea and north along the United States coast as far as Rhode Island.

"This is a new and voracious predator on these coral reefs and it's undergoing a population explosion," Hixon said. "The threats to coral reefs all over the world were already extreme, and they now have to deal with this alien predator in the Atlantic. These fish eat many other species and they seem to eat constantly."

Findings of the new research will be published soon in Marine Ecology Progress Series. The lead author is Mark Albins, a doctoral student working with Hixon.

In studies on controlled plots, the OSU scientists determined that lionfish reduced young juvenile fish populations by 79 percent in only a five-week period. Many species were affected, including cardinalfish, parrotfish, damselfish and others. One large lionfish was observed consuming 20 small fish in a 30-minute period.

Lionfish are carnivores that can eat other fish up to two-thirds their own length, while they are protected from other predators by long, poisonous spines. In the Pacific Ocean, Hixon said, other fish have learned to avoid them and they also have more natural predators, particularly large groupers. In the Atlantic Ocean, native fish have never seen them before and have no recognition of danger. There, about the only thing that will eat lionfish is another lionfish – they are not only aggressive carnivores, but also cannibals.

"In the Caribbean, few local predators eat lionfish, so there appears to be no natural controls on them," Hixon said. "And we've observed that they feed in a way that no Atlantic Ocean fish has ever encountered. Native fish literally don't know what hit them."

When attacking another fish, Hixon said, the lionfish will use its large, fan-like fins to herd smaller fish into a corner and then swallow them in a rapid strike. Because of their natural defense mechanisms they are afraid of almost no other marine life. And the poison released by their sharp spines can cause extremely painful stings to humans – even leading to fatalities for some people with heart problems or allergic reactions.

"These are pretty scary fish, and they aren't timid," Hixon said. "They will swim right up to a diver in their feeding posture, looking like they're ready to eat. That can be a little spooky."

Their rapid reproduction potential, Hixon said, must now be understood in context with their ability to seriously depopulate coral reef ecosystems of other fish. Parrotfishes and other herbivores prevent seaweeds from smothering corals. A major, invasive predator such as lionfish could disrupt the entire system.

Options to manage the lionfish threat are limited, Hixon said. They can be collected individually, which may be of localized value, but that approach offers no broad solution. Recovery or introduction of effective predators might help. Groupers, a fish that has been known to eat lionfish in the Pacific Ocean, have been heavily over-fished in the tropical Atlantic Ocean, Hixon said.

"We have to figure out something to do about this invasion before it causes a major crisis," Hixon said. "We basically had to abandon some studies we had under way in the Atlantic on population dynamics of coral reef fish, because the lionfish had moved in and were eating everything."

Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of UnderwaterTimes.com, its staff or its advertisers.

Reader Comments

8 people have commented so far. cloud add your comment

My family and I have learned to catch, clean and eat Lionfish and are trying to spread the word to local fishermen on the importance of doingthe same. We have worked with the Bahamas National Trust and Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries to do cleaning and cooking demonstrations where people can see how to handle the fish and taste it as well. If all fishermen/recreational users of our marine resources learn to take these fish (Carefully!!) on sight, it will go along way to slowing down their spread and reduce breeding numbers. Lionfish fillet may even become a viable commercial entity thereby further increasing the pressure on their numbers.
   comment# 1   - Alexander P. Maillis II · Nassau, Bahamas · Jul 21, 2008 @ 11:50am

These lion fish should be killed if seen they are a huge threat to our reefs the population of fish will soon be decreasing faster if something isn't done. so I'm asking that if everyone could, they should help to protect our reefs!!!
   comment# 2   - alex · Belize city · Aug 22, 2009 @ 2:12pm

I am currently in Cuba and seem to have found the source. Today I witnessed 20 - 30 adult lion fish on one site with very little else. I cannot find any contact details for the cuban ministry of fisheries and would welcome and information for contact anybody has. graham.tweed@me.com
   comment# 3   - graham tweed · uk · Dec 9, 2009 @ 2:00pm

Here in Negril, Jamaica we have witnessed first hand the destructive might of the lionfish on small reef fishes. Through a GEF funded Coral Reef Monitoring Project we have trained five fishermen to Scuba Dive and during there participation in quarterly Under Water Reef Cleanup exercise we have been ridding the reefs of any lionfish we come into contact with. However, we need a much grander and multi sprang assault on these predators. Kevin Harvey reefsconsultantsja@hotmail.com
   comment# 4   - Kevin Harvey · Negril, Jamaica · Dec 27, 2009 @ 8:21am

The Marine Park here has issued spear gun licences to dive operators, for the sole use of controlling Lion Fish on the reefs of Roatan. The Lion fish sightings started on Roatan early in 2009 and now It is not unusual to find anything up to four lion fish on a single dive. I would be interested to hear how you prepare and cook Lion Fish, as it could become a local delicacy and a useful way of disposing of the speared fish.
   comment# 5   - David Swain · Roatan, Honduras. · Jan 10, 2010 @ 3:16pm

i just met a guy in the fish market in Puerto Morelos who is orgainzing all the fisherman on this coast to fish for lion fish. he has organized a company to buy and export the fish for food. He's an environmentalist/diver who lives in Belize. good things are happening. his name is Dave. web site not up yet. he knows what he is doing. the fisherman have to wait until the lion fish are more mature in this area.
   comment# 6   - brenda · canada and mexico · Feb 2, 2010 @ 4:10pm

What a bummer. I feel for the Atlantic ocean and for Lionfish, who were released into an ocean where they don't belong, and has very few predators. This is just another impact of the aquarium trade as lionfish were originally released from aquariums. I've seen lionfish in the pacific ocean and they are beautiful beings.
   comment# 7   - Diana · Hawaii · Dec 14, 2010 @ 8:43am

I live in Vieques Puerto Rico. I do kayaks tours for a living. I'm working on starting a "Lion Fish" spear fisinig tour. I have obsevsed the rapid population grouth of htese invadors and I am super conserned of their thread to our corals.
   comment# 8   - Abraham Velasquez · Vieques, Puerto Rico · Feb 6, 2011 @ 5:26am
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