An unexpected after effect of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew was the introduction of venomous lionfish into the Caribbean. It is believed that six of the predatory fish where released into Biscayne Bay when Hurricane Andrew smashed a private aquarium.
According to NOAA
the lionfish were first reported off the coast of North Carolina in 2000 and in 2004, 155 Lionfish were caught at 19 different locations, again off the N.C. Coast and began appearing in the Bahamas. Biologists believe that when the fish were freed into the bay they released there floating egg sacks that then road the Gulf Stream to the coast of North Carolina where they colonized the area. The lionfish are now being found from the Bahamas to the coast of Florida and have been found as far north as Road Island during the summer months. The largest concentrations seem to be in the Bahamas where they have invaded every habitat and in some areas have multiplied by ten fold in one year. Mark Hixon
, a marine ecology expert at Oregon State University compared the invasion to a plaque of locusts saying, "This may very well become the most devastating marine invasion in history," and "There is probably no way to stop the invasion completely."
Their venom is not fatal to humans and they are not known to be aggressive towards humans, however they do sting people occasionally. Officials believe the risk of being stung will greatly increase as the Lionfish colonize more of the popular Caribbean beaches. Bruce Purdy, a diver who has helped REEF track the invasion says he has been stung several times. On the worst of these occasions Purdy said,
"It was so painful, it made me want to cut my own hand off,"
is a predator with an apparently insatiable appetite and the ability to disrupt ecosystems and devastate the populations of smaller fish. Researchers have observed the Lionfish eat as many as 20 smaller fish in 30 minutes. A big concern is that the lionfish may devastate the grazing fish that protect the reefs from over population of seaweed. The reefs are already under strain from climate changes and pollution. Andy Dehart
of the National Aquarium in Washington said,
"If we start losing these smaller reef fish as food to the lionfish ... we could be in a whirlwind for bad things coming to the reef ecosystem."
There seem to be only a handful of larger fish that will eat the lionfish. In an effort to control this invasion researchers are scrambling to find just such a predator. Researchers have experimented with moray eels, sharks and even humans. The moray experiment was totally unsuccessful and one report said even a hungry shark would turn away when they attempted to feed them the lionfish, eventually they did have some success with the shark but it took a lot of work. Human test subjects said the fish taste similar to halibut.
One predator that will eat the Lionfish is grouper, scientist are now scrambling to create new reserves to protect the grouper from over fishing as well as other predators that may eat the lionfish. Grouper can be found in the lionfish’s natural habitat in Southeast-Asia. T
Although lionfish have been used as food in their native areas they are usually caught or raised and sold as pets, they are especially popular in the U.S. thus explaining the current problem.