Conservation of marine life but the total eradication of the lionfish. Sounds a bit contradictory? Not at all!
We divers love coral reefs. It is one of the great attractions of scuba diving. Sadly, in the Caribbean, more than 75 percent of coral reefs are already threatened by a combination of overfishing, pollution from land and sea, and coastal development. On top of these already serious threats, coral reefs in the region are experiencing an onslaught from the unchecked lionfish invasion that could lead to irreversible changes to fragile Caribbean reef ecosystems. For example, lionfish eat herbivores, and herbivores eat algae from coral reefs. Without herbivores, algae growth goes unchecked and can suffocate coral reefs.
More than that, Lionfish eat anything and everything; invertebrates, shrimp, crabs, juvenile octopus, squid, juvenile lobster, sea horses, etc., more than 70 different species in total. Many of these species are absolutely vital for the maintenance of healthy coral reefs. Lionfish will gobble prey over half the size of their own body in the process expanding their stomach up to 30 times the normal volume. These bastards have no natural enemies outside of their natural territory and they breed faster than rabbits. A mature female spawns more than 2 million eggs per year and can live up to 15 years.
Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific but are now found in huge numbers along the southeast coast of the U.S., in the Caribbean where on some reefs they have already decimated native fish populations by 65%, in parts of the Gulf of Mexico and the northern coast of South America. They are also in the eastern Mediterranean.
Lionfish appeared first off the coast of Florida in the mid-1980s, where they either escaped from aquariums damaged by storms (so the story goes) or, worse, were intentionally released when private owners couldn’t keep up with their voracious appetites. Some maintain that ships from the Pacific might have introduced them when emptying their ballast water. Either way, the lionfish invasion is probably one of the worst man-made ecological marine disasters and nobody knows how this will end.
The movement to eliminate the invaders has been taken up by the diving community, and there are training courses on hunting them offered by PADI, NAUI, SDI, and DAN amongst others.
Many Caribbean islands are promoting competitions to catch and kill as many lionfish as possible. Some enterprising restaurants offer lionfish on their menus. So, next time you are in one of these, be adventurous and order a lionfish dish. They actually taste delicious and you will make a contribution to saving coral reefs.