Written & Photographed by Louis Novak

The Caribbean is also home for many divers, snorkelers, fishers, and marine biologists. Over the course of the past few years, this home has been invaded by pirates, ones who plunder and pillage the life of the Caribbean. These are not your average Captain Jack Sparrow pirates but rather, this is an invasion of an invasive species of lionfish. These pirates need to do more than walk the plank.

The red lionfish, or Pterois volitans, has made its way from its natural habitat of the Indigo Pacific region to the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean sea. They are a ruthless bunch who ravage the area and take no prisoners. This invasive species is rapidly spreading through the coral reefs in Bermuda, the Bahamas, Turks, Caicos, Cayman islands, Cuba, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Haiti, Virgin Islands, Belize, Panama, Columbia, and the Netherlands Islands including Bonaire. Studies have shown that they have even reached the Southeast coast of the United States and have gone as far North as New York.

The big question is, “How did this species end up all the way to the Atlantic from the Indigo-Pacific region?” The exact answer is not exactly clear, but researchers have summed it down to the best theory possible. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew struck the east coast in Florida. The hurricane smashed through the land leaving a path of destruction behind, including an aquarium tank housing these venomous pirates. The hurricane swallowed up and washed remains of the tank and live fish back into the Atlantic Ocean. The fish quickly adapted to their new environment and started their quest for destroying the natural balance of coral reef ecosystems.

 

The red lionfish’s design has enabled it to become such a problem for Atlantic and Caribbean waters. It lives in a new home that lacks and natural predators. Venomous spines extend from their bodies to ward off any would be predators as well as humans. Their reproduction practices are one of the most detrimental designs for this invasive fish. Females can lay anywhere from 4,000 to 30,000 eggs. If that is not bad enough, once the eggs are fertilized, the embryos begin to form in 12 hours. Next the larvae stage occurs and the larvae will hatch from the eggs in just 36 hours after fertilization. Lionfish do not have a specific mating season, they can mate all year round and can start the whole reproduction process again just one month after egg laying. The feeding habits of the red lion fish are a great concern for the coral reef ecosystems. Lionfish are carnivorous and eat just about anything they can swallow including grunts, snappers, groubers, and shrimp.

They eat the juvenile species in a quite efficient way: one big gulp. Gobbling up juveniles prevents species from repopulating correctly and hurts the health and diversity of the reef. For example, if too many parrot fish juveniles are eaten then when the older fish die there are none to take their places. Parrot fish feed on the algae forming on the coral. Without the fish, the algae will kill the coral. Without a balance in the ecosystem, even more harm could come to the environment.

 

More efforts must be made to blow these intruders right out of the water. Divers who have been trained can hunt lionfish that lurk in the reefs. Because of the dangers of diving combined with the potential risk of being stung by the venomous spines, lionfish hunting is only done in the day time. Divers use a spear gun device to spear the fish. Hunting them has been a good start to the eradication of lionfish but it is not effective enough. Lionfish can withstand depths of 30 to 400 feet. Without the use of special air blends or decompression, divers can safely go down to a depth of 130 feet. The time a diver stays underwater is very limited at that depth. In areas like Bonaire, lionfish hunting is common. The local people have even been making recipes to cook the fish. The venom becomes denatured when the fish is cooked. Unfortunately, the lionfish have started to become “smart” and rarely come out in the day time. During the day they hide in crevices and hole like structures in the coral. This makes hunting them harder and the likely hood of getting stung greater. At night, they come out when the threat of being hunted has dissipated.

These band of pirates have invaded foreign waters and the Caribbean reefs, and they have brought death and destruction with them. They are an unwelcome intruder in a home of a unique and beautiful ecosystem. They must be stopped before the complete destruction of the reef is at hand.

1. “Dive the World.” http://www.dive-the-world.com/creatures-lionfish.php.
2. InfoBonaire, “The Pacific Lionfish on Bonaire.” http://www.bmp.org/lionfish_info.html.
3. National Geographic, “Lionfish.” http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/fish/lionfish/.
4. STINAPA National Parks Foundation, “Lionfish.” http://www.bmp.org/lionfish_info.html.

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