That wasn’t exactly what Dorothy and her pals chanted, but the land of Oz is sometimes comparable to the world under the sea. In today’s environment, new and unfamiliar characters frequently appear on the sea scene. In some instances, this is the product of new technologies leading us to discover new species. In other instances, new characters are accidentally transferred from their home turf to a new place. This is true of a fish known as the lionfish.
Unlike the lion lacking courage, these fish have plenty of courage—along with plenty of biological advantages (see NOAA factsheet). And their Atlantic invasion poses a serious risk to many native species of fish and coral reefs.
Lionfish are native to areas of southeast Asia. They come in a variety of colors, but always wear those distinctive stripes. Their name derives from the rays and spines that surround their bodies and whirl about in the water like a flamenco dancer’s dress. These long spines will deliver a serious punch packed with poison to anything that touches them (including humans). They can live in nearly any environment, possessing a wide-ranging temperature tolerance. Furthermore, lionfish reach maturity at one year of age and are able to produce up to two million eggs in a spawning.
These biological characteristics, along with no natural predators, allow them to thrive in the Atlantic, granting them status as an invasive species. As NOAA describes: “What is as graceful and beautiful as a butterfly, as ferocious as the most dangerous predator, and delivers a painful sting with its venomous spines?” They have been spotted all over the Caribbean, as well as the eastern seaboard—as far north as New York.
It’s not just their dominating presence that’s worth noting—as I mentioned earlier, this species has had a big impact on its new environment. Lionfish are known to consume at least 50 other types of fish, throwing off many sensitive food webs in the Atlantic, including the rainforest of the sea, otherwise known as coral reefs. Their population size is only expected to grow, so this impact will only become more concerning as time goes on.
What can you do to help rectify this issue? Should you be snorkeling or diving and spot a lionfish, you should find a way to notify local authorities (for the US, see the information posted on NOAA’s website). Many countries are concerned about the presence of lionfish and appreciate your help in pinpointing their locations. While there is no way to really eradicate the fish, local groups are trying to keep their numbers low. It may be tempting to just outright kill them yourself, but you really should leave that to the experts. There may be more in the area and the pros will know how to handle them.
On that note, you can jump on board with the latest trend in gastronomy and delight your taste buds with a little lionfish. Yes, you read that correctly. Lionfish are all the rage. (Don’t worry, their venom won’t affect you–assuming you have it prepared by a professional and don’t take it upon yourself to slice and dice.) So do your civic duty and eat up!
Above all, if you have an aquarium or are planning to have one someday, be sure to keep the lionfish out. Lionfish are a very popular for aquarium décor, and this is frequently cited as one of the main culprits of their invasion into Atlantic waters. So as you consider how to show off your marine love, consider Goldie, the standard goldfish.