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EVERYTHING GREEN: Invasion of the lionfish

Heather-Lyn Evanson

EVERYTHING GREEN: Invasion of the lionfish

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THEIR REPUTATION is probably the worst that any species can have.
The only good thing that some people say about them is that they are pretty.
But apart from that, others point to their poisonous quills; their voracious appetites; their stealth in hunting and the impact they can have on an entire marine ecosystem.
Worse yet, they have no known natural predator. And this creature, the Asian lionfish, is just off Barbados’ shore – as close as Guadeloupe. Their imminent arrival has sent two departments –  the Fisheries Division and the Coastal Zone Management Unit – into high alert.
Fisheries biologist Christopher Parker immediately cautions that the Asian lionfish is different to a local fish that has also been dubbed a lionfish.
In fact, said Parker, ours isn’t even a lionfish, but is actually a Scorpion fish commonly known as a sculpin or stone fish.
“They look totally different,” said the fisheries biologist. “What we call the stone fish just buries itself partially in the sand. [They look] like a rock with eyes and you step on them. Lionfish, on the other hand, they do swim; they lurk but they don’t bury themselves in the ground, so you’re more likely to bump into them than step on them.
“They will hold their ground, however. If you approach them, they are not going to scurry away like other fish,” the biologist cautioned.
The invader is native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, but two species have been found in the Atlantic Ocean, and that discovery is responsible for what Parker calls ‘the Atlantic Ocean invasion”. How they got there is still being debated, but in 1992, they were first sighted off the coast of Florida, United States.
There was an eight-year break before the next lionfish was spotted in locations further north, like Rhode Island.
But by 2004, they had appeared in The Bahamas and, since then, have consistently been swimming south, through the waters of Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, multiplying all the while. By the end of last year, 2010, they were sighted in Guadeloupe and in the eastern waters of Venezuela.
“So they seem to be coming at us potentially from the south and from the north,” Parker said.
Lionfish, Parker noted, have all the characteristics that “make it a very successful invasive species” – a high reproductive capacity and a very young age to sexual maturity; a long lifespan of about 15 years and no main predators.
“The lack of natural predators is a problem, but the major issue with them is that they are voracious eaters of our fish,” he said.
“So when they are eating our small reef fish, they are eating two types – the species that live on the reef that don’t grow very big at any point in their life and are an important food source for our commercial fish, and they are taking juveniles from a whole set of species.”
This could spell ecological disaster for our reefs as they would be devouring the fish, like chubs, that help to promote healthy coral. In addition, they could spell the doom of our fishing industry, taking the livelihood from our fishermen and the fish from our tables. But there is hope, if locals are willing to break out their frying pans, saucepans and other cooking implements.
“Lionfish are edible,” revealed Parker.
“They are perfectly edible. It is only the spines that carry poison, the meat is fine. You might get vestiges of it when you process the fish, but even so the toxin is denatured by heat, so once you cook the fish, if there were any traces left over from when you processed it, it would be destroyed,” he explained.
In any event, Parker is urging sea-bathers, divers who spearfish and fishermen to be vigilant and record the exact location of any lionfish they might see to the Fisheries Department and the Coastal Zone Management Unit.

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