As a new member to the Catlin Seaview survey team, with a background in non-indigenous marine species, I felt it appropriate to blog about one of the more pressing issues facing Atlantic and Caribbean waters at the moment. Lionfish, specifcally the two species of Indo-Pacific lion fish (Pterois miles and P. volitans).
The original introduction of lionfish into the Western Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean was, for a long time, the subject of much debate. Commonly held theory was that the first introduction occurred in the mid 1990’s when Hurricane Andrew destroyed a Florida Aquarium in 1992 which led to the accidental release of captive lionfish into Biscayne Bay. It is now widely accepted that lionfish came to the region via aquarium trade and were first found in a lobster trap off Danea Point, Florida as early as 1985.
In Bermuda, the lionfish appear to be acting differently when compared with the rest of the Western Atlantic and Caribbean. We noticed that they are choosing to stay in depth of around 60m, which some researchers think might be due to the constant temperatures at depth. This has given many local Bermudians a false sense of security simply because they can not see the damage being done first hand (remember recreational scuba divers don't really dive deeper than 40 metres). A major problem being caused by the invasive lionfish in the Western Atlantic and Caribbean is what they are eating. Many of the lionfish which have been speared at depth have fatty liver disease from eating too many juvenile fish which are seeking refuge in the deep. Obviously if large percentages of juvenile fish are being eaten by lionfish then there are less that grow to maturity, and we already know that a healthy reef system relies on a healthy, and varied, fish population.
Participants attending a Lionfish Control Plan workshop facilitated by Dr. James A. Morris of NOAA and Lad Akins of REEF established the Lionfish Task Force in 2012. In Bermuda, Lionfish Task force represents over 17 organizations across the island including government departments, the science and environmental community, the dive and fishing community and other organizations and individuals.
The Task Force is coordinating an island-wide lionfish control plan that involves all sectors of the island and the plan covers research, monitoring, culling, trapping and other areas essential to trying to control the lionfish population around Bermuda. For the last two years BIOS has also hosted the Groundswell’s Eat Um to Beat Um” Lionfish spearing Tournament which aims at controlling local populations of this fish and tries to convince local chefs to cook more lionfish. I was, however a little disappointed to not find lionfish on the menu in any restaurant in we visited in Bermuda. I hear it’s delicious, especially when taken out of its non-native environment.
Hopefully with public outreach and successful eradication projects, Bermuda will again enjoy more abundant populations of reef fish, which have seem to be lacking despite the relatively pristine coral life.