Species of the Month: The Lion Fish

Pterois…

Lion FIsh

… commonly known as the Lionfish. Many more names exist such as the Dragon Fish, Fire Fish, and Zebra Fish. It also has multiple names in  different languages including Swahili, Arabic, Samoan, and French. With so many different names, and over 12 different species, it is easy to get confused around the world as the same Lionfish may be referred to in many different ways.

Everything about the Lionfish, their long showy venomous spines, red and white zebra pattern, their ornate beauty, tells you not to touch. Lionfish are venomous and different species can cause slightly differing symptoms if stung. The venomous sting can last for days and can cause extreme pain, nausea, and respiratory distress to humans. It is rarely fatal, but medical attention is highly advised.  Although here on Koh Tao, we feel extremely fortunate if we ever manage to spot one of these majestic creatures on a fun dive, as they are quite a rare sight at our local dive sites. Click here to see a short video clip of a Lionfish at one of our dive sites Aow Leuk. The Lionfish are a predatory species native to the Indo-Pacific region. They inhabit waters from the shallows to a depth of 50 metres, favouring rocky surfaces or coral reefs, and typically have a hostile attitude to other reef fish.  Lionfish range from 5 to 45 cm and can live anything from 5 to 15 years.

Lion Fish 2

There are very few natural predators of the lionfish, this may because of their very well adapted venomous defence mechanism. The list of prey on the other hand, is a big one. Lionfish are gluttonous feeders so they will eat as much as physically possible and have the ability to expand their stomach up to 30 times. In one study, scientists observed a single lionfish eat 20 Wrasse in 30 minutes! They are voracious predators depending on lightning-fast reflexes and camouflage. They will eat almost anything it comes across, mostly small fish, invertebrates, and molluscs but can eat anything up 2/3 of its own body size. Larger lionfish are also known to be cannibalistic and may eat juveniles. It has been observed that a single lionfish in the space of 5 days can reduce marine creature populations in its range by 20% and in some cases up to 80-90%.

Lionfish are very popular pets for aquariums and this is one hypothesis that may have caused their rapid spread through the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf. When hurricane Andrew in 1992 destroyed an aquarium in Florida, they may have been washed out to sea. Other theories include their eggs being introduced through ship ballasts tanks which has happened before such as with the North American Comb Jellyfish and Red Mysid Shrimp. However, Scientist, today believe the most likely cause is that lionfish were being removed from home aquariums and disposed of into the Atlantic ocean mostly around Florida starting the mass invasion of one of the most aggressive invasive species on the planet. The red lionfish (P. volitans) and the common lionfish (P. miles) have now made the East Coast of the United States and the Caribbean their new home. This invasion is causing major problems in these local waters due to a lack of predators, their huge appetites and out-competing the local species.

The current task is to limit the destruction they inflict. Dive shops from the Florida Keys to Honduras have begun hosting lionfish tournaments, in which rival teams of divers compete to kill as many of these fish as possible. At the end of some tournaments, the entire bounty is fried and eaten. In Jamaica, teams of local fishermen competed to see how many lionfish they could catch during the three-day competition. Local resorts, hotels and private organizations provided awards for the fishermen who caught the most lionfish. By the final evening when the awards were presented, 1,446 lionfish of varying sizes had been caught by all the fishermen. In the Cayman Islands, trained lionfish hunters are being offered free dives as an incentive to participate in lionfish culls. All hunting is permitted in an attempt to reduce the impact of the Lionfish on the wider food chain and to help control their numbers and maintain a balanced ecosystem.

Spearfishing lionfish (Pterois volitans), Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras, Caribbean, Central America

Conservation groups are also encouraging fishermen and divers to catch lionfish and eat them and a lionfish cookbook featuring 45 recipes has been made available there. All these efforts to capture and kill them will most likely result in a marked reduction of the numbers of lionfish on the reefs. However, it does need to be an ongoing effort by all the countries affected in the region.

So be careful when looking for the mighty and majestic Lionfish, admire them from a distance and like with all marine life, look, don’t touch. If you’re lucky enough to dive in areas where Lionfish are now common, feel free to join conservation efforts. If however you’re diving somewhere where Lionfish are still uncommon, please don’t try and introduce one into the ecosystem!

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