Eleanor Phillips, director of The Nature Conservancy's Northern Caribbean program
What does the growing lionfish population mean for local species and economies in The Bahamas?
Lionfish feed on young grunts, snapper, grouper and other fish that are important for food and export. If this invasion continues, our fishing industry - which is very important in a country like The Bahamas- could suffer.
Why? Because the lionfish feed on younger fish which may not be ready to reproduce, lowering the population. This is the first year that lionfish have been spreading so rapidly, and we can expect smaller fishing catches soon.
Also, the lionfish spines are venomous (though not fatal) to humans. The stings are pretty poisonous and painful if people touch the lionfish. However, in many countries such as China and Indonesia, lionfish are eaten by locals. There is a need to educate Bahamians on how to prepare lionfish. I think it can be carefully cooked like the blowfish.
How did they get to the waters off The Bahamas in the first place? And how pervasive are they now?
Most scientists and conservationists think the lionfish were dumped into the seas by aquarium owners in the Southeast United States, possibly in Florida. It's a very popular aquarium fish because of its exotic markings and colorings.
The first lionfish sighting in The Bahamas was around 10 years ago, when a dive operator noticed a pair on the reefs north of New Providence. It wasn’t until 2004 when these reports were formally confirmed.
Their numbers were low initially, but significant increases have been documented over the past two years and they have increased exponentially in the past few months. Now lionfish can be observed all over the Bahamian archipelago, including the Turks and Caicos Islands.
How have they survived and multiplied so rapidly?
We can't conclusively say. One thing is for certain — they don't have a natural predator in The Bahamas and appear to be spawning year-round in our waters.
The lionfish is originally from the Indo-Pacific seas — and they appear to like shallow, warm waters — which is probably why they've been able to survive and multiply so readily here. One current theory is that lionfish have achieved a critical mass in the Bahamian waters, causing them to multiply exponentially.
There are several scientists studying the phenomenon, including one of our partner organizations, the Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation. They're currently working with the College of The Bahamas to study the lionfish's rapid expansion here.
Have you seen any lionfish yourself? Where do you find them?
I have seen up to six lionfish on a small reef or coral head — covering less than one square meter.
Warm, shallow waters are ideal habitats for lionfish. They tend to congregate around sea grass areas and along the walls and pilings of marinas and docks. They have also been observed in deeper areas along the edge of the sea wall or drop-off.
So what are the Bahamian government and The Nature Conservancy doing to prevent the spread of this fish?
The Nature Conservancy is on The Bahamas' national Coastal Awareness Committee, along with the Ministry of Tourism, the Department of Marine Resources and other government and private sector agencies and local NGOs.
We are working alongside these agencies to heighten awareness of the threat of lionfish and to assist with appropriate strategies to reduce the threat. Residents are being trained on how to identify and safely remove lionfish from shallow seas.
The Bahamian Department of Marine Resources has started an environmental awareness and education program. They are currently distributing brochures and handbooks on safe handling of lionfish, first aid for stings and how to safely dispose of lionfish.
The College of The Bahamas Marine and Environmental Sciences Institute is also conducting genetic research on the origin of the lionfish as well as conducting targeted surveys to determine the impact this species is having on our marine environment.
How effective has the education and awareness campaign been so far?
Initially the lionfish was seen as a photo opportunity on the reef — but some of the very dive operators who enjoyed taking photos of them are now the greatest advocates for their removal from the reef ecosystem. More Bahamians today are aware of the threat of invasive species and the impact they have on our native species.
Additionally, some local fishermen are also participating in an all-out assault on the lionfish by capturing specimens and turning them over to the College of the Bahamas or the Department of Marine Resources for research. However, there are other fishermen who are succumbing to rumors that just making contact with the fish is deadly. Trying to convince them to participate has been challenging.
Since lionfish have no natural predators here, efforts to capture and kill them will likely result in a marked reduction of the numbers of lionfish on the reefs. But for this to be successful, we need full participation throughout the archipelago and in other countries around the region.
I am convinced that — with increasing awareness about the negative effects of the lionfish and the various partners working together — we will combat the spread of this invasive fish.