The beautiful lionfish, known for its venomous spikes and red stripes, is invading beaches and decimating fish populations in the Caribbean and the Atlantic.
On Monday maritime authorites raised an alert after a lionfish hunting competition – organized by Colombia’s Port Captain, Julio Cesar Poveda, the Navy and the marina at Puerto Velero – resulted in 325 different species of lionfish being found in less than a month.
The lionfish were found around beaches from Puerto Colombia to Galera Zamba, a stretch of coastline in the middle of Colombia’s Caribbean coast, between Barranquilla and Cartagena.
“We didn’t think there were so many,” said Poveda. “We were so surprised that we had to send out the alert.”
Fishermen blame the lionfish for pushing out other similarly-sized fish – which they would ordinarily catch and sell – from the ecosystem. Since their arrival from Indonesian waters they have disrupted the natural order of the foodchain.
Around 70 fishermen took part in the competition, with the marina at Puerto Velero offering to buy the lionfish for $8 a kilo. The winner of the competition will be given $1000 on Friday during the awards ceremony.
The day after local Italian chef Salvo Basile will demonstrate different ways of cooking the fish. He wants people to start eating the lionfish and so incentivize fishing and thus population reduction. But first he must convince people that the fish’s meat has nothing to do with its venomous spines.
The lionfish are described in a BBC documentary as “one of the ocean’s most poisonous creatures.” Although their venom – contained in glands at the base of the spines – is usually not deadly to humans, it is potent enough to cause excruciating pain, vomiting, nausea, fever and convulsions, amongst other things.
Its venom, along with its bright warning colors, also protects it from predators. This is part of the reason why it has been able to flourish in the Caribbean, where one study estimated its population inrease at around 700% between 2004 and 2008.
Now the lionfish is replacing its competitors in the area. While its prey, a diverse variety of smaller fish and molluscs, are wary of other – native – fish in the area like mojarra and robalo; they do not yet identify the lionfish as a predator, and thus naively float around it without fear. Add to this the lionfish’s natural skill and efficiency in hunting, and it is easy to see why its competitors are finding little prey left over to feed on.
It is unclear exactly how the lionfish arrived in the Caribbean – given that its origins are in Indonesia – but the most likely theory is that it was brought to the Americas by humans to fill aqariums.
The lionfish’s beautiful colors and ornamental fins and spines makes it a main-stay at many aquariums in the Americas, and it is quite possible that a specimen was introduced to the sea at some point by an irresponsible collector or after damage done to aquariums by hurricanes.
Both Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 are thought to have caused large numbers of lionfish to end up in the sea, which subsequently swam south to the Caribbean.
Lionfish can reproduce monthly, the females producing as many as 15,000 eggs. To stop the population growing it has been suggested that as much as 27% of the adult population would have to be killed every month.