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"Lionfish Invade the Caribbean"
(Our delicate marine ecosystem)

environmental issues A few months ago I was on a photo assignment in Great Exuma, Bahamas. As I have been diving in the Pacific Ocean on quite a few occasions I am quite familiar with many of the species that live there. So you can understand my surprise when diving in Exuma I came across a Red Lionfish, which is indigenious to the tropical Pacific and Indian Ocean ...

I had heard about the Lionfish inhabiting parts of the Atlantic and Northern Caribbean since 1992, but until recently there was no extensive documentation.

If you have read some of my past articles on the Environment you are familiar with how our Marine Ecosystem works. It is super delicate and each specie in it has a function. Take one of those species away or add an outsider and you immediately create a problem. That's what has happened with the Lionfish.

If nitrates, acids, coral bleaching, sediments aren't enough we now have this non-native, ravenous fish here in the Caribbean threatening the coral reefs.

How did they get here? Well it seems as though the Lionfish is a favorite to aquarium hobbyist. The story is that it is believed that six of the predatory fish were released in Biscayne Bay, Florida when Hurricane Andrew destroyed a private aquarium. When the fish entered the bay they released their floating egg sacs that then road the gulf stream all the way to North Carolina and colonized the area. They are now being found all along the Florida Coast and through the Bahamas. According to surveys the specie has mutiplied 10 fold in one year.

Some of you who are familiar with this invasion have heard the story of the eggs escaping from a ship's water ballast coming from the Pacific Ocean through the Panama Canal. As the Lionfish has not been sighted in this area, this does not seem possible.

Now if you are wondering why this fish is becoming a problem I will explain. You probably say well it's a fish and lives in the ocean, What's the problem? The problem is that he does not belong here in the Atlantic/Caribbean ecosytem. He belongs in the Pacifc/lndian Ocean as mentioned previously. He has entered a food chain where he does not belong.

To describe this fish and its habits you could say that he is absolutely magnificent in color and shape. Maroon and white stripes, or red and white, with long spines and delicate fins protruding. He is about 18 inches long and a predator with an insatiable appetite and completely fearless of other marine fishes. He has the ability to disrupt ecosystems and absolutely devastate populations of smaller fish. It has been said that he can devour 20 smaller fish within 30 minutes. So the concern is that he will wipe out the smaller grazing fish that protect the reefs from over population of seaweed. Over population of anything in this ecosystem is not good. This fish is extremely venomous and should not be touched by humans. The sting is very painful but not life threatening. and the fish is not aggressive in anyway toward humans.

It uses its large fins to corral its prey, then consumes it in one rapid strike or gulp.

Now the next question is how to contain this specie? When the ecosystem is violated like this, the hardest thing to do is to correct it.

With the Lionfish you look for its natural predator. Enter the Grouper.

Well this is all well and good except unfortunately in the Caribbean, Bahamas, Atlantic they have been overfished for years.

Today there is a huge push to try and protect the Grouper to the extent that at least it can somehow regulate the Lionfish population.

As most scientists will tell you, this is an uphill battle. This is a new and voracious predator on the coral reefs and it's undergoing a major population explosion.

This is a prime example of how delicate our marine ecosystem is. Our coral reefs certainly do not need another problem. We can only hope that this situation will be contained before it reaches the Southern Caribbean.

Photo Credit: Wolcott Henry
National Geographic