August 15, 2008
A Lionfish Swims in the Gulf of Aqaba Off Jordan. Red Lionfish Are Wreaking Havoc on Caribbean Marine Environments.
By David McFadden
WIDENING WOE IN WATER
Invasive fish is big-time bad news for sensitive region
A maroon-striped marauder with venomous spikes is rapidly multiplying in the Caribbean's warm waters, swallowing native species, stinging divers and generally wreaking havoc on 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."
A white creature with maroon stripes, the red lionfish has the face of an alien and the ribbony look of something that survived a paper shredder - with poisonous spikes along its spine to ward off enemies.
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.
The catfish are now common in South Florida, where they threaten smaller fish in wetlands and fish farms.
In Africa, the Nile perch rendered more than 200 fish species extinct when it was introduced into Lake Victoria. The World Conservation Union calls it one of the 100 worst alien species invasions.
"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.
Some spots in the Bahamian archipelago between New Providence and the Berry Islands are reporting a tenfold increase in lionfish just during the last year.
"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.
Purdy said he has been stung many times while rounding up lionfish - once badly. "It was so painful, it made me want to cut my own hand off," he said.
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. Lionfish have even been spotted as far north as Rhode Island, the NOAA said.
Originally published by David McFadden, Associated Press.
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