By: Emma Park
Lionfish haven’t always inhabited the Caribbean. They exist naturally in the Indian and Pacific oceans, but in recent years have caused damage to the ecosystems of the Atlantic. One theory states that lionfish were introduced to the Atlantic in 1992, when a hurricane in Florida flooded an aquarium, releasing just six of these fish into the wild. Since then, lionfish have multiplied rapidly in their new environment. The Atlantic ecosystems are unable to control this unfamiliar species, allowing the lionfish to become a successful—and very harmful—invasive species.
Over winter break, I spent 9 days in the Caribbean working with Hello Ocean, a non-profit organization that engages audiences in ocean conservation efforts through media. While I was there, the team was producing a video on lionfish mitigation efforts in St. Barthélemy, where lionfish appeared around 2010.
The St. Barthélemy Nature Reserve is working to minimize the negative impacts of lionfish. Olivier Raynaud, the Director of the St. Barthélemy Environmental Agency, explains that lionfish have the potential to wreak havoc on local ecosystems; while they do not have natural predators here, they eat almost anything that they can fit in their telescopic jaws. Olivier said that some studies have found that lionfish can eat up to five times their weight in just a single day. Additionally, these fish multiply very quickly, which makes it nearly impossible to eradicate them.
In the Indian and Pacific Oceans, where lionfish are a native species, there are predators such as large grouper that can regulate the lionfish population. No such predators exist in the Caribbean, so the lionfish population can grow freely and damage the populations of fish species lower on the food chain.
The Nature Reserve is currently working to mitigate these potential effects. The Reserve hosts participatory events in which volunteers hunt for lionfish. It is also working to integrate lionfish into local food chains, by cutting the lionfish into pieces and throwing them back into deeper waters where predators can consume them. Additionally, the Nature Reserve performs stomach content analyses of the lionfish to try to gage the impact that these fish are having on reef biodiversity.
In native ecosystems lionfish are not a problem, but in the Caribbean, it’s incredibly important that organizations like the Nature Reserve work to help the ecosystem regain its balance. You can read more on invasive lionfish and the threats they pose here.