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Lionfish Invade Caribbean Waters
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January 2009 Lionfish Became Cozumel Enemy #1

Following initial sightings in January 2009, Cozumel's National Marine Park brought in experts on lionfish in order to educate the providers of marine services regarding the management of the invasive fish species which was reportedly seen in Cozumel waters. Lionfish have been documented in the Florida Keyes, the Bahamas and Cuba. The lionfish is an exotic species that puts the reefs and marine life of Cozumel at risk. This dangerous and spectacular fish is a native of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and spotting the fish in Cozumel waters late January 2009 was terrible news.

According to Dr. James Morris of NOAA, who spoke in Cozumel in August of 2013, this invasive fish has made its way all the way down the continental coast now to Brazil. If left uncontrolled, scientists expect the Lionfish to use the Amazon river and its natural, open causeways to traverse South America and then attack the western coast of South America as well in less than a decade.

The lionfish was introduced to Atlantic waters about 16 years ago. Some blame the ballast of sea-going vessels. Others cite aquarium owners who dump the fish when they outgrow their tanks. The first documented Atlantic sightings came days after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, when six lionfish were spotted in Biscayne Bay and traced to a private aquarium swept away from a Miami waterfront home. It is believed that lionfish hitched a ride north on the Gulf Stream, up the East Coast, and eventually south to the Bahamas and the Caribbean. Regardless of the culprit, the lionfish has since caused ecological havoc on fragile Atlantic ecosystems already burdened by over-fishing, pollution and global warming. Lionfish are altering the diversity of an area that has taken hundreds of thousands of years to adapt and evolve. They are eating their way through the Atlantic reefs, causing the most devastating marine invasion in history.

The lionfish grows to a maximum of 20 inches long. Because of its exotic features, the zebra striping and a feathery mane of fins, it is the number two aquarium fish in the US behind the clown fish, but this beauty is a beast. They are fearless because of the poison they carry in their sharp spines, and cold water appears to be their only real enemy. Otherwise, they thrive at depths ranging from a few inches to 500 feet. The lionfish’s coloring allows it to strike its prey from the protective camouflage of a coral reef. Lionfish eat like no other fish in the Atlantic, using their fanned out fins to block escape by prey. They devour commercial fish, such as grouper and snapper juveniles, as well as those species’ food supplies. In a 2008 Oregon State University study, research teams observed one lionfish gorging on 20 small fish in less than 30 minutes. It could ultimately kill off helpful algae-eating species, allowing seaweed to overtake reefs. There are no natural enemies for this fish in the Caribbean, and it can reproduce without control.

Grouper Learning to Feed on LionfishIn the years since the initial discovery of lionfish in Cozumel waters, significant ongoing efforts have been put into place to try to curb the growth of its population on the reefs. Cozumel's Marine Park staff has held educational seminars training divers on how to safely spear lionfish and lionfish harvesting tournaments are held regularly now amongst dive shops. Local restaurants are doing their part by experimenting with various ways to serve lionfish and putting it on their menus so as to create a consumption market for the fish which multiplies prolifically. In addition, divemasters and local marine life specialists are taking opportunities to try to train larger fish like grouper and nurse sharks to feed on the lionfish. Since lionfish are new to these waters, for the most part, larger predator fish are not aware that lionfish can be a quick easy meal since they are typically very slow moving.


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