Snorkeling or diving around the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico you may come across the Lionfish, one of the most recognisable fish. At first glance a striking, beautiful and unique fish, yet with a relatively new, sinister threat to the fish populations of the area. So far away from its native home in the Pacific and Indian oceans, the Lionfish is categorised as an invasive species in the Caribbean sea and the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the delicate coral ecosystems – which potentially could decrease the Atlantic reef diversity by 80%. The two species found in the Caribbean are the red Lionfish, Pterois volitans and the common Lionfish, Pterois miles. It is believed the Lionfish were introduced to the Caribbean sea by transportation in ballast tanks of ships from Pacific and Indian Oceans or by being released by retired/unsatisfied aquarium enthusiasts.
Having practically no predators in the Caribbean the Lionfish populations are booming with a high reproductive rate of 2 million eggs a year from one female and living up to 15 years. Lionfish are skilled hunters with voracious appetites eating practically all fish on a reef - studies have found up to 50 species of juvenile fish in the stomach of a Lionfish and without any predators to stop them they have become dominant in the food chains in these areas. They can even consume up to 80% of an area's small reef fish in 5 weeks. If action isn't taken soon to control these Lionfish populations - in the future it may be only them you see swimming in the Caribbean reefs.
Documenting the Issue
Throughout the Caribbean, marine protection groups are driving for market based approaches to lower Lionfish numbers. Some of these include promoting Lionfish as food, using their spines, fins, tails as jewellery and starting up Lionfish derbies. In a recent and fascinating BBC documentary; Simon Reeve's "Caribbean" he travels to Barbados and discusses the issues Lionfish are causing and what is being done to lower populations. Local conservation groups are urging fishermen to hunt these fish and sell them to restaurants to eat. This is quite a controversial issue and brings up an ethical conundrum as conservationists hate to take life. However, it is a human created problem – it is our duty to fix it to save reef populations from dying out. This highlights the impact human activity has on the balance of nature; we should take steps to be more eco-conscious of our actions to protect ecosystems and prevent such issues from occurring in the future.
"Eat 'em to Beat 'em"
In this documentary the Lionfish were taken to Oistins, a fish food eatery in Barbados, where they were encouraging locals to eat this delicacy. Having recently returned from a trip to Barbados myself it was evident how popular Oistins is, especially the Fish Friday. The majority of the island's locals and tourists alike visit on this day to experience the market and sample the fish. If conservation groups can encourage more to serve Lionfish and persuade more locals/tourists to eat it, demand for Lionfish will increase. Therefore pressuring fisherman to hunt them, thus lowering their population.
Lionfish are claimed to be the ultimate in guilt-free eating – delicious, nutritious and eco-conscious. The nutritional benefits are great, with white buttery meat, it is claimed to have the highest concentration of omega-3 in their category . There are many myths around Lionfish due to the venomous spines and relatively unknown taste and so locals and tourists are hesitant to taste it. As the spines are venomous and the fish itself not poisonous once prepared with spines cut off the fish is perfectly fine to consume.
Similarly in St Lucia, conservationists are encouraging locals to try Lionfish, in Bermuda they have created the "Eat 'Em to Beat 'Em" campaign encouraging Bermudans to put Lionfish onto the menu. Lionfish jewellery initiatives are beginning to gather momentum in Belize, the Bahamas and St Vincent & The Grenadines. Furthermore, Lionfish derbies, around Florida are being set up to persuade people to reduce their numbers. A Lionfish derby is a one day competition in which people enter the competition to collect and remove as many Lionfish as possible. These have been proven to be highly effective in lowering the population, 'from 2009-2012 derbies by Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) removed a grand total of 10,231 Lionfish'. It is also a prime educational event to teach and make the public aware about the invasive Lionfish in these waters, furthermore convincing them to eat this tasty treat.
Its always saddening when life is taken, however as this is an invasive species threatening a delicate ecosystems there is no other alternative action. It is necessary to create awareness of this increasing threat for the sake of the delicate reef systems and biodiversity. So if you happen to be traveling to the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico, perhaps try a bit of nutritious, delicious Lionfish.