There are twelve species of lionfish found worldwide. Originally native to the Indo-Pacific, these beautiful and highly venomous fish are an aggressively invasive species now being found throughout the Caribbean and Mediterranean.

Lionfish are easily identified by their colorful red and black bands and ornate pectoral fins. These attractive features make them a favorite for underwater photographers as well as aquarium enthusiasts. Because they are both lovely and dangerous, it can be hard for divers to decide whether the lionfish is friend or foe.

The worldwide spread of the lionfish has become a bit of a divers legend, with tall tales ranging from escaped aquarium fish and abandoned pets to the accidental release by researchers. Realistically, their eggs are most likely transported in the bilge water of large boats. When these ships empty their ballast tanks, the eggs are expelled into the sea where they hatch and form new colonies. Because they are carnivorous and have a very short breeding cycle, lionfish establish themselves in new habitats quite quickly. In areas where they face no natural predators, their numbers can increase rapidly and exponentially. Especially in the Caribbean, these expert hunters threaten to consume entire reef ecosystems. Thus far, efforts to control their populations have not been effective.

The lionfish does not only pose a threat to reef fish. Their venomous spines make them a hazard for divers and fishermen as well! The poison from their sting can cause pain, numbness, paralysis, labored breathing, and even heart failure. Casualties are uncommon, but those with an allergy to their venom are especially vulnerable. Generally, lionfish are not aggressive toward divers. However, caution should always be exercised. These fish are highly territorial, and can at times display a hostile attitude with humans that get too close.

Lionfish are typically found along the rocky edges of coral reefs, and are commonly spotted by divers as deep as 50 meters. They prefer to feed in the morning, and spend the afternoon resting. They are also known to stalk and ambush their prey at night, and are often encountered by divers after dark.

Lionfish hunt by luring small fishes in close using the bait-like tentacles near their mouths, and then "surrounding" their intended prey with their outstreched fins. Then they blow jets of water to confuse the already cornered fish before swallowing it whole. Researchers have found that a lionfish may have up to 7 different small reef fish species in its stomach at any time.

In some areas, lionfish are now hunted both for sport and for food. Their meat has yet to become popular, but it is hoped that an increase in demand could lead to specific fishing thereby marginally controlling the population. Unfortunately, it is estimated that this method of maintanence would require removing over 25% of the adult population monthly. And as overfishing strikes many of these same areas, the species which could potentially prey on lionfish (sharks, moray eels, large snappers and groupers) are rapidly disappearing.

Lionfish hunting tournaments are also gaining popularity, especially in the Caribbean. These competitions are intended to strike at large numbers in a short period of time. In many areas, researchers are urging divers to remove any and all lionfish that they encounter in the water.

While lionfish have a well earned bad reputation, they remain a favorite subject for many underwater photographers. Also, their populations are not out of control in all areas where they are found. Fortunately, ecosystems in their native habitats are able to withstand their relentless hunting. Especially in southeast Asia, the lionfish is still nothing more than a small predator somewhere in the middle of a rather large food chain. For this tenuous balance to remain, apex predators must be preserved in large enough numbers to actually hunt them. Long line fishing, trawling, and shark finning are all factors leading to the hostile takeover of the lionfish.

So, what can divers do to help?
First of all, we can choose to only eat sustainably sourced seafood. This means avoiding large pelagic species that commonly feed on lionfish. When available, we can also choose to purchase and consume lionfish instead of native species. Where permitted, divers can also participate in hunting expeditions and derbies. Some areas even allow routine spearfishing!

Of course it is mandatory that you observe all area laws and regulations before hunting or capturing any marine species, invasive or not. Divers can also report lionfish sightings to environmental organizations such as NOAA.

While the future of the lionfish is uncertain, one thing remains clear. This exotic species is on the rise, and not in a good way. Both beautiful and dangerous, this species threatens worldwide ecosystems already on the brink of collapse. Even the most environmentally conscious diver might consider carrying a spear instead of a camera for their next dive!

@ This article above is written by Jessica Merrill (PADI Instructor #351781), please give respect to her copyright!
This article & photos are not to be reproduced or distributed without written permission of Jessica Merrill.



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