August 14, 2008
Lionfish Devour Native Species — Caribbean Invasion Compared to Locusts
By David McFadden
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - A maroon-striped marauder with venomous spikes is rapidly multiplying in the Caribbean's warm waters, swallowing native species and stinging divers in an ecologically delicate region.
The red lionfish, a tropical native of the Indian and Pacific oceans that probably escaped from a Florida fish tank, is showing up everywhere - from the coasts of Cuba and Hispaniola to Little Cayman's pristine Bloody Bay Wall, one of the region's prime destinations for divers.
Wherever it appears, the adaptable predator corners fish and crustaceans up to half its size with its billowy fins and sucks them down in one violent gulp.
Research teams observed one lionfish eating 20 small fish in less than 30 minutes.
"This may very well become the most devastating marine invasion in history," said Mark Hixon, an Oregon State University marine ecology expert who compared lionfish to a plague of locusts. "There is probably no way to stop the invasion completely."
The invasion is similar to that of other aquarium escapees such as walking catfish and caulerpa, a fast-growing form of algae known as "killer seaweed" for its ability to crowd out native plants.
"Those kinds of things happen repeatedly in fresh water," Hixon said. "But we've not seen such a large predatory invasion in the ocean before."
The lionfish so far has been concentrated in the Bahamas, where marine biologists are seeing it in every habitat: in shallow and deep reefs, off piers and beaches, and perhaps most worrisome, in mangrove thickets that are vital habitats for baby fish.
Northern Caribbean islands have sounded the alarm, encouraging fishermen to capture lionfish and divers to report them for eradication.
The invasion would be "devastating" to fisheries and recreational diving if it reached Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to Eugenio Pineiro-Soler of the Caribbean Fishery Management Council.
"I think at the best they will have a huge impact on reef fish, and at the worst will result in the disappearance of most reef fish," said Bruce Purdy, a veteran dive operator who has helped the marine conservation group REEF with expeditions tracking the invasion.
Researchers believe lionfish were introduced into the Atlantic in 1992, when Hurricane Andrew shattered a private aquarium and six of them spilled into Miami's Biscayne Bay, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Biologists think the fish released floating sacs of eggs that rode the Gulf Stream north along the U.S. coast, leading to colonization of deep reefs off North Carolina and Bermuda.
Also known as turkey fish, dragon fish and scorpion fish, they are native to the Indo-Pacific oceans.
The largest lionfish can grow to about 15 inches in length, but the average is closer to 1 foot.
The venom of the lionfish is purely defensive. It relies on camouflage and lightning-fast reflexes to capture prey.
A sting from a lionfish is extremely painful to humans, but is rarely fatal.
In "Star Trek: The Next Generation," Capt. Jean-Luc Picard kept a lionfish named Livingston in an aquarium on the Enterprise.
- From Our Press Services
Originally published by David McFadden Associated Press .
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