Many of you may have already heard about the threat that is facing our precious coral reefs‚ the lionfish. If you haven’t, it’s time to learn about this invasive species, and spread the word to all snorkelers and divers you know.
In late 2008, the first lionfish was found in St. Croix off the Frederiksted pier by divers from N2 the Blue Dive Shop and was captured and turned into The Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR).
Despite their exotic and beautiful appearance, the lionfish is one of the most dangerous threats to the ecosystem of the coral reef.The lionfish is a species native to the Indian-Pacific Ocean, and began popping up in the Atlantic Ocean area in the early 2000′s. Some speculate that their appearance may be due to their presence in exotic aquariums in the States. Lionfish are distinctive for their brown or maroon and white striped appearance and for the long venomous spines on their fins. These spines are used defensively and are not lethal to humans, though if stung, some people often have strong reactions beyond just pain, redness and swelling, such as headaches, cramps, nausea, paralysis and seizures.The real threat posed by the lionfish is their insatiable appetite for smaller fish‚ it is said they will eat anything that swims. Because of their striking natural defense mechanisms in their spiny fins, they have few predators and exist at the top of the food chain. They often corner smaller fish with their intimidating spines.
Dive Training Magazine had a great article in the November 2010 issue about Lionfish saying that…these voracious piscivores can eliminate 80 percent of the juvenile fish population on a reef in as little as 5 weeks. In turn, they not only eliminate the next generation of fish, but also take away the food source from other important commercial species, such as adult grouper and snapper‚ Lionfish also eat the ecologically important algae eaters of the reef like parrotfishes, damselfishes and surgeonfishes. Pretty scary stuff for the delicate balance of our marine ecosystems.
Michelle Pugh from Dive Experience emphasized the importance of nipping the problem in the bud, before it gets out of control, saying that St. Croix has had the most aggressive response to the predator in the Caribbean. Michelle says that the more people who are educated about it, and help to spread the word about what to do when you see a lionfish will really be important in helping our community stem this problem and protect our reefs. She mentioned that many people consider lionfish to be a beautiful, exotic fish but don’t realize what a serious threat they pose to the marine environment. If as many people as possible on island are aware of the issue, the more reports we can get to Fish and Wildlife and the more we can all help to control this issue! Lionfish stay within an area of about five feet for several days at a time, so divers who spot one can mark the spot alert DPNR Fish & Wildlife, or even just let one of the local dive shops know so they can contact the right people to eradicate the fish. You can pick additional information on lionfish from DPNR, Fish & Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy and most dive shops.
IF YOU SEE A LIONFISH:
- Do not touch it! Lionfish spikes are highly poisonous!
- Mark the location with a cork streamer. Take a GPS reading if you can or get a detailed description of the location. If properly trained and equipped, you can also spear the lionfish and eradicate yourself.
- Call DPNR immediately (anytime, 24/7) to report the sighting: (340) 643-0800 or (340) 773-1082.
- Fill out the Lionfish reporting form from DPNR, if needed.
Now that it is legal (and encouraged) to spear hunt lionfish to help eradicate the problem, St. Croix’s dive shops and conservation groups have turned lionfish hunting into a sport! There are lionfish derbies and tournaments that offer prizes for the biggest and most Lionfish caught. Dive Experience even offers a one tank afternoon Lionfish Hunt Dive for those want to try their hand at hunting and help out St. Croix at the same time. Please spread the word about the lionfish, the only way we can really combat this threat is with widespread knowledge throughout our community. Be sure you know what a lionfish looks like and to contact authorities as soon as you see one. Be sure to pick up a marker before your next dive or snorkel trip!
Read more about the lionfish at: NOAA Ocean Service Education