It is at the same time both one of the most striking fish you'll encounter as well as one of the most dangerous to appear in the waters of Biscayne National Park.
Elegant in appearance with its waving spines, the Indo-Pacific lionfish poses a threat to both native fish and human swimmers in the park. Voracious in appetite, these fish native to the far side of the world can out-compete the native snapper and grouper fisheries that are both commercially and ecologically important not just in the park, but throughout the Caribbean.
Thought to have arrived in the waters of Biscayne Bay back in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew swept through the region and someone accidentally released several lionfish into the bay, today these predators are growing in numbers throughout the Caribbean, Bermuda, and along the Eastern seaboard all the way to Rhode Island and as far south as Columbia in South America. According to Biscayne National Park officials, "it is estimated that within the Atlantic Ocean, they are now as abundant as many native grouper species"
According to NOAA's Undersea Research Program, "due to their population explosion and aggressive behavior, lionfish have the potential to become the most disastrous marine invasion in history by drastically reducing the abundance of coral reef fishes and leaving behind a devastated ecosystem."
Reports of lionfish within and around the national park began surfacing in 2008, prompting park staff to develop its Lionfish Management Plan, which outlines protocol for assessing and removing this exotic species. In June of 2009, a reported sighting was confirmed and park staff were able to locate and remove the individual.
Once introduced, lionfish can rapidly become an established species. The introduced lionfish poses potential problems for both the environment and humans:
* They are voracious predators that appear to compete for food resources of the already depleted, commercially and ecologically important, snapper-grouper fishery.
* They have few natural predators in the Atlantic Ocean and studies show that Atlantic predators avoid lionfish.
* Introduced lionfish are not timid and readily approach divers and snorkelers.
* Their venomous spines can sting park users and can cause intense pain, swelling, headache, nausea, paralysis, and convulsions.
According to NOAA, "When hunting, they herd and corner their prey using their pectoral fins, then quickly strike and swallow their prey whole. With few known natural predators, the lionfish poses a major threat to coral reef ecosystems in the Caribbean region by decreasing survival of a wide range of native reef animals via both predation and competition. While native grouper may prey on lionfish, they have been overfished and therefore unlikely to significantly reduce the effects of invasive lionfish on coral reef communities."
Additionally, the agency adds:
It was not unusual to observe lionfish consuming prey up to 2/3 of its own length. Results of the experiment show that lionfish significantly reduce the net recruitment of coral reef fishes by an estimated 80%. The huge reduction in recruitment is due to predation and may eventually result in substantial, negative ecosystem-wide consequences. It is also important to note that lionfish have the potential to act synergistically with other existing stressors, such as climate change, overfishing, and pollution, making this invasion of particular concern for the future of Atlantic coral reefs.
Perry Institute for Marine Science
What can you do if you see a lionfish in Biscayne National Park?
1. Document as much information about the sighting as possible. If you have a camera, take several photographs. Information recorded should include the details in the bulleted list below.
2. Report your sighting information to Resource Managers at Biscayne National Park via email or by phone: 786-335-3649
3. If possible, avoid handling or contacting the lionfish. If you must handle the fish, avoid touching the fins (the locations of the venomous spines). If you have removed the lionfish from the water, do not release it back into the ocean.
Types of information to record and report if you observe a lionfish in Biscayne National Park:
* Date and time of sighting
* Location of sighting (if you have a GPS, record the coordinates)
* Depth of sighting
* Habitat (coral reef, seagrass, hardbottom etc)
* Number of lionfish
* Size(s) of lionfish
* Behavior of lionfish
Now, interestingly, while it's not advised that you try to handle these fish, if you can do so safely they do nicely as a main course, says NOAA.
"Lionfish flesh is tasty and cooking denatures the spine venom," the agency says.