Lionfish, from the Pacific ocean are sought after for marine aquariums in North America. Off of the Atlantic coast in the United States, the Gulf of Mexico, and into the Caribbean, though, this predatory fish has become an invasive species, threatening marine and reef ecosystems. It is believed that lionfish were introduced into this region when 6 of them escaped from a Florida aquarium in 1992, after the aquarium was damaged by Hurricane Andrew. To control the population of these invasive fish, creative measures are being employed.
Origins of the Lionfish
The Lionfish originated in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. Its range extends from just north of Australia and to the east, then northwestward to just south of Japan and Korea, and west through much of Micronesia.
Lionfish inhabit waters from the shallows to a depth of 50 metres, favouring rocky or coral reefs.
It is also known as the Dragon Fish, Lion Fish, Red Firefish, Scorpionfish and Turkey Fish. The scientific name is Pterois volitans, in the Scorpaenidae family. It has many more names in languages as different as Vietnamese, Swahili, Malayalam, Arabic, Samoan, French and Swedish. The Lionfish is not to be confused with the “Sea Lion”, the whiskered mammal with flippers that so often claps and balances a ball upon its nose.
How Lionfish Gained a Finhold in the Caribbean
Since Lionfish are strikingly attractive in a large salt-water aquarium, they have been imported as exotic pets. Although they may first have escaped into the Biscayne Bay region in 1992 due to Hurricane Andrew’s damage to a beachside aquarium, it is likely that further specimens have been released by hobby aquarists since then.
The Lionfish seem to have few predators or parasites in the Atlantic Ocean. They dine on cardinalfish, damselfish, parrotfish, young grouper, and crustaceans such as lobster.
Once they are found near a specific reef, native fish species decline to about 20% of their usual numbers in that location. The Lionfish seem to be voracious and very successful in hunting.
The Venomous Lionfish Sting is Dangerous to Humans
The long spines of the Lionfish contain venom which is painful and potentially fatal to humans. All the spines, whether pelvic, dorsal or anal, can deliver toxins causing local pain and blistering. Serious symptoms include changes in blood pressure, delirium or seizures, congestive heart failure, loss of consciousness, and possibly death.
The standard first aid treatment for Lionfish sting is to immerse the stung area in hot water to neutralize some of the venom, while arranging for professional medical treatment.
Promoting Lionfish as Food
In its native Indo-Pacific range, the Lionfish is a valuable food source for people. It is economically important for attracting tourists and as an export to aquarists around the world.
Florida and a number of Caribbean countries had encouraged fishing derbies as well as touting this species as the making of a good meal.
Recently, however, biologists in St. Maarten found that half their captured Lionfish contained a biotoxin that can often lead to ciguatera poisoning. This biotoxin originates with poisonous algae. It accumulates in the predatory fish, because they eat many smaller algae-eating fish.
Mild ciguatera poisoning symptoms include nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. Severe cases may progress through paralysis to death. Professional medical treatment is always well-advised.
Other fish that may lead to ciguatera food poisoning include barracuda and jacks.
The take-home message is to avoid eating Lionfish in a region with a history of ciguatera poisoning from any species of fish. One might still eat Lionfish in other regions with no history of ciguatera poisoning.
Cautious fishing for the venomous Lionfish is still encouraged; but dining on Lionfish is now also a riskier venture due to ciguatera fish poisoning.
Fishing derbies consist of paying contestants who compete to see who can catch the most and largest fish. A lionfish Derby in Florida in June of 2010 included boats from Florida and the Bahamas, and a top prize of $5,000. One boat caught 345 lion fish in a single day (a sure indication of the overpopulation of these fish) and 941 lionfish were caught in all. The largest one caught was 19 inches and weighed almost 4 pounds.
The popularity of the derbies continue to grow, and hopefully so do the number of contestants. If you live in, or are visiting Florida, and think you would like to participate in a lionfish derby, they are held every six months or so. You’ll have some fun, maybe win a prize, and help protect marine ecosystems.
Marine Aquarium Retailers Offer Atlantic Lionfish for Sale
Retailers who deal in marine fish for the home aquarium are now offering Atlantic lionfish for sale. One retailer, Saltwaterfish.com, actively promotes the sale of Atlantic lionfish they have in stock over the usual varieties that come from the Indo-Pacific.
This again is a win-win situation for the environment and the economy. Lionfish that come from Florida travel a great deal less to get to North American retailers than the ones from the Indo-Pacific. As such, these fish usually sell for a lower price than their Asian counterparts. The aquarist saves money while helping stem the tide of an invasive species of fish. The lionfish, as well, most likely prefer to be kept in an aquarium than end up on a dinner plate.