It’s a case of “Free Willy” gone wrong: the escape or – more likely – intentional release of a home aquarium animal into the tropical waters off of Florida has resulted in a potentially devastating explosion of invasive species populations along the U.S. Atlantic coast. The runaway? Lionfish.
Scientists suspect this slow-moving and venomous fish, native to the Indo-Pacific Ocean and the Red Sea, was first unleashed into Atlantic waters in the 1990’s. Although genetic evidence suggests the original invaders were limited to just a few fish, the remarkable reproductive rate of lionfish (a single female can produce up to two million eggs!) and practical lack of predators have led to an abundance of the species from the Caribbean to Bermuda, even as far north as Long Island, NY!
They may be beautiful, but lionfish are bad for business in Atlantic coral reefs. Invading ecosystems such as mangroves and coral reefs, lionfish are voracious predators, eating several fish per hour. And they aren’t picky eaters. With a wide variety of fish and crustaceans on their menu, lionfish have the potential to decimate native fish populations. Not to mention they’ve got a mean sting. While not fatal to humans, the venomous fin rays and spines of the lionfish can cause serious injury, including edema, intense pain and necrosis at the site of sting and at least one case of paralysis. (Suffice to say, you wouldn’t want to step on one).
What can we do?
Scientists and wildlife experts are still trying to figure out how to eliminate the lionfish from its unnatural habitat. Ideas include targeting young lionfish or increasing potential predator populations (like tiger and Nassau groupers) to provide natural control. Some people propose eating our way out of the problem, hosting targeted fishing derbies, offering prizes for the most lionfish caught. However, therein lies danger: increased traffic in and around the reefs where lionfish are found increases the risk of damage to the reef and other species.
One sure-fire way to prevent other invasive outbreaks like this is to be a responsible aquarium or pet owner. ALWAYS ask your vendor for assurances that creatures were collected and imported using sustainable and humane practices, and NEVER release animals into the wild. You never know where they may end up!