During hurricane Andrew in 1992, it is believed an aquarium with lionfish at Key Biscayne in Florida ended up in the Atlantic Ocean. ‘Why is that a problem?’ you may ask.
Lionfish are indigenous in the Indio pacific oceans and the Red sea but not the Atlantic Caribbean belt. In their natural habitat they have a diet that is not a threat to the environment; there are many more varieties of species and they have natural predators. However, in the Atlantic Caribbean oceans they are feeding on species that are key to our environment such as juvenile groupers, parrotfish and crustaceans. Lionfish are voracious predators and can consume huge percentages of juvenile fish recruits. In thirty minutes one lionfish was observed eating more than twenty fish!
And they breed rapidly; they release around 20,000 eggs every 4 days!
Scientists are predicting that lionfish will have a grave impact on Belize’s already stressed stocks of fish and lobster and could spell potential disaster to our marine habitats.
Here in Southern Belize, we at ReefCI spotted our first lionfish in November 2009 but they were few and far between. Now, we are spotting multiple lionfish on every dive and at all depths. This is a huge increase and very worrying because we are the only consistent divers in the area.
ReefCI divers and snorkelers are taking a special lionfish spear on most dives and removing as many as we can, which is great fun!! After capture, the lionfish data is taken and the stomach contents are analyzed and sometimes the fish themselves wind up on our dinner plates, they are really tasty!! Many countries in the Caribbean are developing response plans to mitigate the negative impacts lionfish have on native fish populations and the coral reef ecosystems. ReefCI are collaborating with an NGO in Belize called EcoMar. Belize has a program in place with EcoMar who are working with the National Coral Reef Monitoring Network's Lionfish Committee and the Belize Fisheries department on developing a National Lionfish Response Plan. They are currently discussing strategies on how to remove these invasive creatures and ReefCI are an integral part of this.
We have also managed to get lionfish on the menu at a local 5 star resort where guests are encouraged to try this tasty fish as an alternative to more overfished stressed commercial species.