It sounds like science fiction, but exotic fish invasions are a real problem. A popular aquarium species called the lionfish has been found in increasing numbers in the Caribbean and as far north as New England. In the Caribbean, they are threatening to displace native fish and disrupt local fisheries.
Nature.org spoke with Eleanor Phillips, The Nature Conservancy Director of External Affairs for the Caribbean, about the lionfish explosion in The Bahamas and how the Conservancy is helping curb its spread.
“If this invasion continues, our fishing industry, which is very important in a country like The Bahamas, could suffer.”
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? Lionfish feed on younger fish that may not be ready to reproduce, reducing native species populations. Since lionfish were first observed, they have spread throughout the Caribbean region and can be found at depths up to 1,000 feet!
Also, lionfish spines are venomous (though not fatal) to humans. The stingers are poisonous and painful to the touch. However, in many countries, such as China and Indonesia, lionfish have been a delicacy for years. We have seen lionfish popping up on more menus in the Caribbean, and we need to continue to educate the public on how to prepare lionfish. They’re delicious to eat!
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 lionfish were dumped into the seas by aquarium owners in the Southeastern United States, possibly in Florida following Hurricane Andrew in 1992. It's a very popular aquarium fish because of its exotic markings and color.
The first lionfish sighting in The Bahamas was in the late 1990s, when a dive operator noticed a pair in the reefs north of New Providence. It wasn’t until 2004 when these reports were confirmed. Their numbers were low initially, but substantial increases have been documented.
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 water, 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 Bahamian waters, causing them to multiply exponentially.
There are several researchers, partner organizations and agencies such as the Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation and The Bahamas Department of Marine Resources studying the phenomenon. These groups have monitored the spread of lionfish in The Bahamas and areas where numbers have increased and decreased. Population decreases may be due to the fact that larger lionfish are now being targeted by fishers and a small-scale market has emerged.
Where are lionfish most often found?
Warm, shallow waters are ideal habitats for lionfish. They tend to congregate around seagrass 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 Conservancy doing to address the issue?
The 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 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.
Finally, The Bahamas Marine Exporters Association along with the boating industry have worked with conservation groups to organize lionfish tournaments in an effort to educate and engage fishers and boaters in this conservation initiative, encouraging them to remove lionfish from the marine environment. Restaurants have even held lionfish preparation competitions and have begun to include lionfish on their menus to help establish a market.
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.
Some local fishermen are participating in a mission to capture specimens and turn them over to the College of the Bahamas or the Department of Marine Resources for research. However, there are other fishers who believe 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 except for isolated incidences in which goliath grouper have been documented eating them, efforts to capture and kill lionfish will likely have the biggest impact on the population. But for this to be successful, we need full participation throughout the archipelago and in other countries in the region. I am convinced that with increasing awareness about the negative effects of the lionfish and the various partners working together, we can combat the spread of this invasive fish.