Children globally have been warned about the monster in the closet, Loch Ness Monster, and Creature from the Black Lagoon.
But children, I am here to tell you that there is a new creature in town. This creature I speak of is not a man beast with a savage heart, is not lurking in the bedrooms of unsuspecting youth, nor is it a Plesiosauria. In fact, to date, the creature I speak of has not been misrepresented in a Hollywood feature film. However, it is to be known and its reach is not to be underestimated. Read on to hear what aspects of the creature Pterois (a.k.a. the lionfish), are meant to invoke unease among children and adults alike...
The non-fable of the lionfish begins in the Indo-Pacific. The lionfish reigns from these seas where the Indian and Pacific Oceans collide, near Indonesia. Once upon a time, the lionfish arrived in the United States, far from its native waters, via the aquarium trade. While all details are unverified hearsay, story has it that in 1985, an aquarium enthusiast displeased with their lionfish pet sent one down the porcelain loo and it landed in the Atlantic Ocean. In 1992 Hurricane Andrew hit Florida, possibly liberating several more lionfish who were living in aquariums. What began as a few individuals seeking the striking, beautifully-patterned lionfish for their aquarium displays has turned to this, and beyond...
If this GIF is unnerving to you, your intuition is on the dot. Here are the facts about the invasive lionfish: Because they are not from the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, or the Gulf of Mexico, they do not have any known predators in these areas. "Why?" you ask. Well, the native species sharing the waters with the lionfish did not evolve with the lionfish and therefore do not recognize them as a food source. Beyond some light cannibalism taking place among the lionfish, they can live their lives without fear of being eaten. Even if the species disinterested in a meal of lionfish become interested, eating the whole fish is not necessarily good for them, because of the 18 venomous spines with which the lionfish is adorned. The hungry lionfish are not picky eaters; they prey on more than seventy varieties of fish in addition to some invertebrates and they can eat a creature that is up to half of their body length (the largest on record being 19 inches/47 centimeters). Part of the reason their ocean buffet is well diversified is because they can inhabit waters with a temperature range as wide as 50° to 95° Fahrenheit (10° to 35° Celsius).
If all of that was not enough to invoke concern around this invasion, let me tell you about their sex lives. A lionfish becomes sexually mature in less than a year. To reproduce, it takes only two lionfish (whereas with many other fish species, it is more of a group event). The lionfish eggs are let out into the ocean currents in two transparent masses that hold 12,000-15,000 eggs each. Here is the kicker, they have the potential to reproduce every 2 to 4 days. Yes, the quick math you just did in your head is correct, a female lionfish can spawn over 2 million eggs in 1 year. The only thing scarier than the reproduction habits of the lionfish is if humans could reproduce as quickly...
In order to put their invasion and resilience into perspective, I ask you to imagine a stretch of Indo-Pacific ocean that is the size of a football field. In that space, you will find four lionfish (Marquesas Islands study done by Kulbicki et. al., 2012). Now, imagine a stretch of Bahamian ocean that is the size of a football field. In that space, you will find over 300 lionfish (Green & Cote, 2009). On a heavily invaded site, the lionfish can reduce the native prey fish population by 95%. Did I mention they are loyal to their neighborhoods and do not migrate? And why would you if you had no predators to hide from or share food with?
Because the lionfish population is established and their invasion is well on its way... it is now time to work together to keep balance ☯ in the ocean's ecosystems. Reefs can tolerate a certain amount of lionfish; the goal is to find that sweet spot. And in doing so, we must venerate the lionfish as we must all species on the planet.
REEF is a group of divers and marine enthusiasts who are giving us the resources and direction to establish balance in the regions inhabited by the lionfish. REEF links the diving community with scientists, resource managers, and conservationists through marine life data collection. Their ≈10 employees and over 60,000 members have kept their fingers and fins on the pulse of the lionfish invasion and have been our eyes and ears underwater. REEF works passionately to offer lionfish-centric workshops, tutorials, dive trips, and a plethora of information and resources.
REEF intern Casey Aumann regaled me with the tales of lionfish dissections. She shared with me that they are fat fish—their bodies have a high fat content and they are even developing fatty liver disease. The dissections show that the lionfish are eating far more than they need to for survival. When examining lionfish stomach contents, researchers are finding a large amount of prey fish that appear to be digested at about the same rate. This illustrates that lionfish will eat many prey fish in a relatively short period of time. The word gluttony comes to mind. Well, humans, it is time for us to use our gluttonous tendencies for the good of all...
REEF's "Eat 'Em To Beat 'Em!" campaign shows humans how to safely collect, handle, fillet, and enjoy this abundant food source. The fish do not go for hook and line and other common fishing practices, humans must spear or use small handheld nets to catch lionfish. Through their popular Lionfish Derbies, REEF has shown that the lionfish hunt is not only good for our planet, but is also a good source of recreation and sport. At the derbies, teams of SCUBA divers, free divers, and snorkelers compete to collect as many lionfish as possible in the allotted amount of time. If you can catch only a few in one reef, you are making a huge impact on that reef. After enjoying the fun at the derbies, consider that spearing lionfish may not be a bad full-time gig, as they are selling for $8-9/pound at Whole Foods.
Be an ocean hero, would ya? Continue learning about the invasive lionfish, perhaps you can quit your job to become a lionfish hunter, and, at the very least, if you are going to be a glutton, put the depleted Atlantic bluefin tuna down, and order up a large serving of lionfish. REEF has conveniently provided a list of restaurants who serve lionfish. Why not ask your favorite restaurants if they would consider serving lionfish? Where there is demand, supply will follow. Remember, each and every lionfish we take out of the ocean, saves a surfeit of prey fish and helps restore balance ☯
And, lastly, as you sing along to this classic by The Marvelettes, be sure to insert "lion" before "fish".
Note: This writing is only an overview of the lionfish's impact on the ocean's ecosystems. This writing does not dive into the different theories as to why lionfish do so well in foreign waters versus the Indo-Pacific, nor the theories surrounding the impact of nature's evolution along with conservation efforts. Please leave your questions in the comments section below and we can continue to look at the research that has been done on the lionfish together.
Enjoy these photos from one of REEF's recent Lionfish Derbies and whet your palate...
Photo Credit: Sarah Schindhette
If you don't know, now you know...
In this writing I speak of "the lionfish" for simplicity. However, there are 12 species of the lionfish in the genus Pterois. The red lionfish (P. volitans) and the common lionfish or devil firefish (P. miles) are the two species that have invaded the areas mapped above. Whether a lionfish is a red or a devil firefish cannot be determined by sight alone. Although, enough research has been done to show that the red lionfish is making up the large majority of the two species found in the Atlantic/Caribbean/Gulf of Mexico regions being invaded.
I would like to thank Casey Aumann of REEF for helping me understand the lionfish invasion. Her 5-month internship with REEF is one of numerous examples of Casey putting her energy towards marine conservation through research, adventure, and educating others. Casey is currently finishing her degree in Ecology and Environmental Biology with a concentration in Marine Science, as well as her Geographic Information Systems certificate. Although her home, Wisconsin, is a non-coastal region, she has made many efforts to explore our seas through a semester exchange in Hawaii and a trip to the Galapagos Islands. Casey is currently in the Bahamas and Key Largo with REEF. What inspired her focus? She knows that in order to understand climate change, we must look to the oceans. Casey's highlight ocean adventure was swimming with the surgeonfish off of the Galapagos, and seeing how unafraid they were of humans. Thank you Casey for helping with this article and for all of the other ways you volunteer your efforts for the planet. We are all excited to see what unfolds for you post-graduation!
What I ate for breakfast today:
In keeping with the theme of be-7 and connecting us all through common ritual, I will always share what I had for breakfast (my favorite meal of the day) on the day I wrote a certain post. If it features someone else, you will get to hear what they ate. Who knows, you could even get some ideas to shake your morning routine up a bit?
- spaghetti squash
- snow peas
- green beans
- evoo, basil, and adzuki bean miso to season
Note to self: Eat more lionfish for breakfast!