If you have joined us in the past at Andros South, before loading up for a day on the flats you may have noticed the goofy, spiny, aquarium looking fish that tend to hang around our dock from time to time. These are lionfish, and although they are stunning to look at with their long venomous spines, they are becoming an increasing problem all over the Bahamas. Not native to the Atlantic, the lionfish is considered an invasive species to Bahamian waters and has exploded in numbers since its introduction. This has raised a great ecological concern throughout the Bahamas and our waters here in South Andros are no exception.
According to the Bahamas National Trust, the red lionfish (also known as the zebrafish, turkeyfish, or firefish) is native to the Indo-Pacific region including the Red Sea. Due to their extremely unique appearance, they are often sought after as an aquarium fish throughout the world, including the U.S. The most accepted theory of their introduction into the Atlantic Ocean is the release of these aquarium fish somewhere between the coast of Florida and North Carolina. Although it is unclear whether this was an intentional or unintentional release, since their introduction, populations of lionfish have found their way south to the Florida Keys and Bahamian waters and have since exploded in numbers.
Lionfish are considered voracious predators and have been said to feed on ‘almost anything that can fit into mouths.’ Other than simply competing with other commercially important fish species, a large concern is the lionfish’s ability to decimate small populations of coral cleaning fish that are vital to the ecosystem. In fact, according to Dr. Mark Hixon, a professor at Oregon State University who has studied reef fish in the Bahamas for over two decades, it has been found that a single lionfish can reduce the number of small fish on a reef by nearly 80% in only a few weeks! These fish are vital in the health of the coral reefs, and without them, opens up the reefs to becoming overwhelmed with seaweed and other biomass. Furthermore, no known predators to the lionfish occur in Bahamian waters to slow the population of a fish that is thought to reproduce all year long. In fact, studies have been conducted in which lionfish were fed to large potential predators such as large groupers and sharks. However, such predators were found to have not recognized the lionfish as food.
To make removal of such species even more difficult, lionfish have been found in water from only a few feet deep to water as deep as 500 feet! On some islands, such as Abaco, lionfish have been found moving their way into the mangroves and creeks raising concern for these fisheries as well.
A great deal of research is now being conducted in search of a viable solution to control the outbreak of lionfish. Furthermore, the Bahamian government is doing their part to educate the public of the threat of the lionfish to the delicate ecosystem of the Bahamas, by encouraging people to fish for lionfish. Contrary to popular belief, the lionfish is not poisonous to eat as their venom is confined only to their spines. Care must be taken when cleaning a lionfish, however when properly prepared, they are said to be quite tasty! In fact, it has been said that they possess a similar taste to that of a snapper. Nonetheless, it is believed that promoting a market for the consumption of lionfish might be the best plan of action against the spread of such a voracious invasive species. Save the Bahamas, eat a lionfish.