In late August I was visited family in the Sunshine state of Florida, and as a scuba diver for more than 15 years, I took advantage of my time on the water to get a few dives in. Even though the Gulf of Mexico doesn’t have the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean, or at least not in the part I dive in, it’s still beautiful down there.
My father is a hunter so he spends his time looking for big fish and lobsters. I just like exploring. It’s pretty cool when you sink down into the water and a huge school of tiny fish opens up a hole for you to fall through (though not so cool when it’s a wall of jellies instead, and they don’t get out of the way).
One of the dives my father and I went on was part of an old oil rig that went down to about 130 feet. We were planning on landing on top of the rig, at about 90 feet, but ended up on the sandy bottom instead and had to swim up the legs of the structure. While doing so I encountered a species of fish I had yet to see while diving in the Gulf of Mexico: Lionfish (Pterois).
Lionfish are beautiful animals with strips and tentacle-like flowing fins. There are ten species, Spotfin lionfish (P. antennata), Luna lionfish (P. lunulata), Devil firefish/Common lionfish (P. miles), Frillfin turkeyfish (P. mombasae), Clearfin lionfish (P. radiate), Soldier lionfish (P. russelii), Hawaiian turkeyfish (P. sphex), Red lionfish/Volitans lionfish (P. volitans), P. andover, and P. brevipectoralis.
Now, I’ve been diving on and off for over fifteen years, so you would think I’d have seen these fish before, but I hadn’t. And the reason for that is that they are not native to the region. In fact, not only are they non-native, they are aggressively invasive species from the Indo-Pacific region. I hadn’t seen them on my previous dives a few years prior for a simple reason: they hadn’t been there.
On the eastern side of the United States and in the Caribbean, the spreading species are usually the red lionfish, and on occasion the common lionfish. How they came here is up for some debate, but the two most likely reasons are that during Hurricane Andrew , in 1992, an aquarium housing lionfish had been destroyed and potentially released the fish into the Bay; there is also reason to believe that the fish may have been purposely released by pet owners no longer wishing to care for them. It’s been estimated that their populations are increasing at a staggering rate.
A venomous fish, they do not have many natural predators in their native environments and even fewer in their new colonies. They prey on smaller fish, invertebrates, and mollusks, competing with native species for food and territory. Their venom can be fatal to humans, although that’s rare, yet is still extremely painful as well as causes such side effects a vomiting, headaches, dizziness, convulsions, and more.
Due to their rapid spread and few predators, lionfish can have a strong negative effect on the ecosystem. Research done by Oregon State University showed that lionfish presence on a reef could reduce the native small fish population by 80%.
Lionfish are capable of breeding every month, increasing their numbers drastically and making it much harder for them to be eradicated. In an attempt to control the population, governments and organizations have taken drastic steps. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has, for the first time in its history, started handing out permits to people wishing to hunt lionfish within the Sanctuary. Several conservation groups have organized hunting expeditions, some offering prize money for the most lionfish caught. While it is necessary to be cautious, lionfish are edible as long as they are prepared correctly and many organizations have encouraged their consumption in an effort to not only control the population but offer alternatives to other over-harvested species.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration encourages people to report sighting locations so that they can keep track of the spread and density of lionfish communities, and many sanctuaries may encourage visitors to speak up as well. And if you’re interested in a tasty lionfish dish, give it a try. There is no specified fishing season on lionfish. They don’t belong over here so they are fair game!