The lionfish (Scorpaenidae), one of the most beautiful family of marine fish found in saltwater aquariums, has established a reef head in the Atlantic Ocean and is working its way into South Florida’s estuaries, eating virtually any fish that it can fit into its mouth along the way, according to a report in the New York Times. The foot-long venomous fish is native to the Indo-Pacific region of the Pacific Ocean, stretching from the Gulf of Aden to the Philippine Sea to Hawaii.
It is a voracious feeder and has no known predators in its native waters, but in the Atlantic Ocean, where the lionfish first arrived in the 1990s, officials are hoping that the overfished grouper will help to control this invasive species. A research team led by the University of Queensland’s Prof. Peter Mumby of the School of Biological Science says that the grouper (Serranidae) could help to control the exploding population of lionfish. The team surveyed the inner and outer reefs of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, and noted that in 2006, no lionfish were encountered, but in 2010, the lionfish was present in all of the research team’s 12 study sites. They noted, however, that the sites with large grouper populations experienced a significant decrease of lionfish; 10 times lower than those reefs with smaller grouper populations. Lionfish have been found in the bellies of grouper.
“The big issue in the Atlantic is that lionfish are highly voracious piscivores, and are eating through native species at an alarming rate. For example, one study found that lionfish presence led to a 79% average reduction in larval fish recruitment,” said Christie Wilcox, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology whose dissertation is focused on the lionfish invasion in the Atlantic Ocean. “Another found that the arrival of lionfish led to a shift from a coral to algal dominated ecosystem, presumably due to high predation on herbivores by lionfish.”
While Wilcox has read the grouper study, she believes more needs to be researched on the predator/prey relationship. “While they did find that grouper density and lionfish density are negatively correlated, they did not determine whether this relationship is due to predation or competition, though they cite previous studies on groupers and other small predators to suggest it could be predation,” Wilcox told FishChannel.com “Other studies have found groupers tend to avoid lionfish, and don’t seem interested in eating them, so that’s still up for debate.”
Another plan of attack to control the lionfish is to make it a food staple for human consumption. Some say the meat of the lionfish is flaky, akin to that of grouper, the very fish that scientists hope will help to control the lionfish population. In fact, according to the New York Times article, the Nature Conservancy last summer held a lionfish food fair in the Bahamas, offering local fisherman $11 a pound for the fish and then cooking the fish for consumption at the fair.
Although lionfish are among the most beautiful fish in the sea, they are voracious predators of small fish and conservationists are concerned about their impact on native fish populations, Professor Mumby said as much in an article that appears on the University of Queensland Australia website. In 2006 the research team did not find any lionfish, but by 2010 lionfish were present in all of the group’s 12 study sites. They noted that that the sites that had a healthy population of large grouper (some of which can grow several hundred pounds) had significantly smaller populations of lionfish.
“Grouper populations in the Atlantic have been destroyed by commercial fishing, and I would hazard a guess that it is unlikely that they can reproduce at a high enough rate to effectively control lionfish populations. Lionfish reproduce quickly and year round, and have overtaken Atlantic reefs in less than a decade,” Wilcox said.