In heavily invaded areas, lionfish have reduced native fish populations by up to 90%
And therein lies the problem: Lionfish are decimating populations of recreationally, commercially, and ecologically important fish. Notorious for their voracious appetite, lionfish are gobbling up nearly everything that crosses their path. Scientists have found that in heavily invaded sites, native fish populations have declined by up to 90%; Larger predatory fish have even been documented actively avoiding lionfish in these sites. With a stomach capable of expanding up to 66% of its original size and the ability to consume prey up to half their size, lionfish have become the new king of the coral reef – an unrelenting predator with an insatiable appetite. The lionfish is an apex predator in disguise, establishing itself at the top of the food web wherever it swims. Their survivability spans an impressive array of environmental conditions and can be found in nearly all subtropical marine habitats: temperatures as low as 10°C; bodies of water where salinities vary wildly; shallow water and deep water habitats – you name it, the lionfish invasion is almost unstoppable; the operative word here being “almost.”
Eat the enemy!
One of the most common misconceptions about lionfish is that they are poisonous – a common misnomer when describing animals containing toxins used for defense. The lionfish is actually a venomous creature, the difference being that poisonous organisms must be ingested in order to harm the body, whereas venomous creatures must sting or bite in order to deliver their harmful toxin. While this may sound like mostly irrelevant scientific jargon, it actually leads to an interesting realization: Lionfish are delicious.
Yes, lionfish have 18 venomous spines that, when handled improperly, can deliver a painful, non-lethal sting, but when the spines are removed and discarded, lionfish are completely harmless. Filleted, grilled, and served with cilantro and a peach-mango salsa, lionfish can hold its own with even the pickiest of seafood connoisseurs. In many places, lionfish has even become a delicacy – a highly sought after entrée that benefits an already overfished ocean. And while the lionfish is an incredible example of biological adaptability, the key to restoring the delicate balance of our oceans just might lie in having the species swim in butter rather than our coral reefs. In fact, our best shot at controlling an out-of-sight, out-of-mind ecological disaster may just be our dinner plates. When it comes to solving the lionfish invasion, as the adage goes, “We have to eat ’em to beat ’em!”
Interested in learning more about the lionfish? Check out how Florida Keys locals are rallying around Lionfish derbies to control local populations of lionfish on Florida’s coral reefs. To see what our marine biology camps are doing, check out our Preserving Paradise service journey to the British Virgin Islands with GoBeyond Student Travel.
Images courtesy of REEF, NOAA, USGS, and SportDiver