The first recorded lionfish to be spotted in the Caribbean was by a commercial fisherman off the coast of Dania Florida in 1985. Little was taken from this sighting at the time. In 1992 however it is believed that some aquarium lionfish had been released into Biscayne Bay, Florida where they were able to live very healthily and reproduce. Soon after they were found in additional Atlantic locations around the US and in 2004 they finally made it to the Bahamas. From the Bahamas they quickly spread across all of the Caribbean and down Central and South America. Although there are various species of lionfish, 97% of those found in the Caribbean and Atlantic are the red lionfish or Pterois valitans.
Lionfish have been able to spread such distances by hitching rides on boats. They would be sucked up in ballasts of large container ships and then be released off the shores of various islands where they had no trouble feasting and growing in masses. Here are some of the reasons why these lionfish found themselves in a free world where they could do anything they wanted with no consequences.
FEEDING - The lionfish entered a new reef where no other fish knew what they were, and so, didn’t fear them. The lionfish takes advantage of these everyday-free meals and consumes more than 30 times its own volume everyday. Some even as large as 3/4 their own size! Marine biologists in the Bahamas observed a large lionfish eating 20 small fish in just half an hour, leaving some small fish populations there to have dropped up to 90%!
PREDATORS - The lionfish is also lucky in the fact that in this new environment it has close to no natural predators because they are not recognized and because their venomous spines are not very appetizing. Large lionfish have been recorded and taught to be eaten by certain sharks and groupers and juvenile lionfish are often consumed by wrasses, coronets and mantis shrimp. This is why we have humans…
Adaptation and Growth - Lionfish are able to easily adapt to their environment and have remained comfortable enough to reproduce at alarming rates thanks to the abundance of food and warmth of the water. Female lionfish reach maturity within 1 year after birth and are then able to begin laying 25,000 eggs every four days! The female lionfish reaches maturity at 4″ and the male at 7″ in length but this does not mean they stop growing after the first year, although not typical, the largest recorded lionfish in currently 18 inches long!
Natural Armor - Lionfish also entered this new area with natural armor of their own; 9 long and sharp spines on the back and 7 slightly shorter anal spines filled with venom and covered in a colorful warning or tissue. Divers who have been stung has exclaimed intense pain in the pierced spot and far around it. Swelling and throbbing are a common occurrence but some may be more prone to symptoms such as nausea and loss of self-control. However, this venom is only in the spines and when cut off, the lionfish can safely be eaten!
The issue at hand is that if no action is taken, the lionfish is here to stay. We are currently the natural predators of the lionfish must play our part in the food chain to get rid of them before they ruin our reefs. If the lionfish continue to remove the mesopredators and herbivores from the ecosystem, then there will be no fish to eat the algae and seaweed off the coral, in this case the seaweed and algae will grow over the coral and kill it resulting in even less food for all fish in the ocean. This reaction is already clearly being seen all around the Caribbean and must be stopped before it is too late.
*First Aid - If you are ever diving and get stung by a lionfish, immediately alert your buddy and begin your ascent to your safety stop and soon out of the water. Pour hot water over the affected area. If stung in the hand for instance out your hand in a cup of water as hot as you can bear. You can then either pass by the hospital for a safe check up and injection, or take loratadine to stop the reaction. We suggest you take the safest route on your first sting.