There is perhaps no greater threat to our reefs than the invasive lionfish. The attractive aquarium fish is one of the most aggressively invasive species in Bermuda’s waters. There are so many factors that make the lionfish unstoppable as a predator, it’s no surprise that they are difficult to control.
The lionfish is sought out for it’s vibrant red and white colouration in aquariums, but this is, in reality, a warning pattern. The lionfish has eighteen venomous spines in total which deliver a venomous sting and can cause extreme pain and swelling that lasts for days in humans. The spine works like a syringe; its sheath is pushed down as it enters a victim and glandular tissue, agitated by movement, releases venom in to the wound.
Lionfish have no threshold for eating. Since they encounter no predators in Bermuda, and Bermudian fish do not recognize them as a threat, they are able to eat to their fill and beyond. In their natural habitat of the Indo-Pacific, lionfish evolved the tendency to eat available prey, even if they were full, since opportunities to eat could be few and far between. This adaptation continues in Bermuda, though some specimens have been found to be developing fatty liver disease due to eating so much of the prey which does not recognize them as a predator.
Lionfish affect reef ecosystems dramatically; by eating juvenile fish which have not reached sexual maturity and reproduced, they cause the decline of species. In as little as five weeks, lionfish have the ability to reduce juvenile fish populations on a reef by up to 90%. Parrotfish are vital to reef survival, and if their decline is caused by lionfish, the reef will be smothered with algae and corals will die due to lack of sunlight. The result is a desolate reef populated by schools of lionfish, with little biodiversity in animals or plants. Lastly, lionfish are extremely fast-breeding fish. They reach sexual maturity within a year, and a single lionfish can spawn about two million eggs per year.
In Bermuda, lionfish are already populating the deep sea at depths of about 60 meters. The fight to keep them at that level, where they cannot affect our reefs, is being waged at present. An effective campaign to stop the increase of lionfish populations is the Eat Em’ to Beat Em’ initiative. Lionfish meat is perfectly edible, and the preparation of lionfish is completely safe after their venomous spines are cut off. They yield white meat which cooks well and tastes delicious; similar to snapper or rockfish. In addition, Bermudian citizens over 16 can apply for a license to spear-hunt lionfish as part of the lionfish culling program.
More information can be found about lionfish threats here.