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 any divers you know. Lionfish are Caribbean reef killers at large, and the St. Croix dive community is hunting them down.
In late 2008, the first lionfish was found in St. Croix off the Frederiksted pier by divers from N2 the Blue Dive Shop. It was then captured and turned into The Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR). In 2009, the original Virgin Islands Lionfish Response Plan went into effect, but the severity of the lionfish invasion has only worsened. As a result, the Virgin Islands Lionfish Management Plan was updated in 2014 as a collaborative work. DPNR, The Nature Conservancy, The Caribbean Oceanic Restoration and Education Foundation (C.O.R.E.), as well as community members, organizations, agencies and businesses that were concerned about the impacts of the lionfish invasion joined forces.
Despite their exotic and beautiful appearance, the lionfish is one of the most dangerous threats to the coral reef ecosystem. 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 United States. Lionfish are recognized by their distinctive brown or maroon and white striped appearance, and 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. Basically, it is said they will eat anything that swims. Due to their striking natural defense mechanisms in their spiny fins, they often ‘corner’ smaller fish. They also have few predators and exist at the top of the food chain.
Dive Training Magazine had a great article in the November 2010 issue about lionfish saying: ‘…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.’ This is a huge risk to the delicate balance of our marine ecosystems, and to our fishing resources, and our island economy.
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 & 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– Jennie Ogden, Editor
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