Georgios Kefalas/AP
A lionfish (pterois volitans).

Carnivorous Lionfish Threaten Eastern Habitats

April 30, 2009 07:02 AM
by Emily Coakley
Overfishing usually hurts underwater ecosystems, but researchers are hoping it can control an invasive species that is wreaking havoc off the East Coast of the United States.

Lionfish a Concern From North Carolina to Caribbean

The fish are reproducing "at a pace unlike anything scientists have ever seen from an invasive fish species in this part of the world," reports the Raleigh News & Observer.

"They’re eating everything. They could wipe out entire reefs," Lisa Mitchell told the N&O. She leads the Florida-based nonprofit Reef Environmental Education Foundation, which is working with Caribbean islands on the lionfish issue.

Local aquariums, or owners of private tanks, may have introduced lionfish off Florida’s coast around 1990, ScienceDaily reported. Lionfish are native to the Pacific Ocean, where they are prey for large grouper. In the Atlantic, though, the fish hasn’t developed any major predators, but preys on many other species.

In July, ScienceDaily reported on a new study that said shortly after lionfish arrive in an area, "the survival of other reef fishes is slashed by about 80 percent." Oregon State University researchers found that it took about five weeks for lionfish to reduce "young juvenile fish populations by 79 percent."

“[W]e’ve observed that they feed in a way that no Atlantic Ocean fish has ever encountered. Native fish literally don’t know what hit them,” said Mark Hixon, an OSU professor who worked on the study, according to ScienceDaily.
The public is taking steps to help solve the lionfish problem. On May 2, the South Florida Free Divers plan to hold a "Lionfish Smash" spearfishing tournament. According to the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, the event is “an effort to reduce the number of harmful lionfish on the reefs in Bimini.” 

North Carolina researchers, according to the N&O, are working with divers and culinary instructors “to see if the critters can be kept in check with spears, nets and tartar sauce.”

Lionfish have a taste similar to some of the fish they threaten—snapper and grouper—the newspaper said.

Related Topic: Restoring ecological balance

Removing invasive species, though, is not an easy task. Earlier this year, a report in the Ecological Society’s Journal of Applied Ecology explained how a plan to remove feral cats from Macquarie, an island between Australia and Antarctica, backfired. The cats were harming birds native to the island, but they were also controlling the rabbit population.

Without the feral cats, the rabbit population soared, causing damage to vegetation that the birds need. The rabbits and cats were invasive species introduced in the 19th century. Fixing the rabbits’ damage will cost an estimated $16 million, The Associated Press reported.

As the Macquarie Island situation illustrates, trying to fix environmental damage is a costly proposition. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this month announced a $14 million, five-year plan to restore the alala, or Hawaiian crow population. Currently, only 56 birds remain in conservation centers on the Big Island and Maui.

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