Scuba divers spend large sums of money traveling to the western Pacific Ocean in search of the beautiful but venomous Lionfish. Returning divers are eager to share even mediocre images of these creatures to amaze divers and non-divers alike. They are indeed a beautiful creature.
But move those same adventurous divers to the western Atlantic and the situation changes drastically. Lionfish in the Atlantic are the basis for fear, concern, studies and hunting. What’s makes the Atlantic different from the Pacific? Lionfish are not native to the western Atlantic. They feed on small reef fish, commercial fish, shrimp and crabs. Since these invaders are not native, their prey have not been able to develop a defense mechanism. So their population now grows unchecked.
On a recent trip to Vieques, PR I had the opportunity to see firsthand the extent of their invasion. I would not be uncommon to spot 6 to 12 Lionfish of various sizes on a single dive. Many of the divers working for local dive shops would plan their own recreational dives to hunt the invaders. Hunting would certainly provide a tasty change in their meals and help with population control.
Lionfish dorsal, pectoral and anal fins have hypodermic like spines that carry venom to their prey. This same venom can be very painful to humans and requires medical attention. In addition Lionfish have no western Atlantic predators to help control or overtake the current population. So their numbers are on the rise with no limit in sight.
It has not been confirmed yet as to how this graceful creature was introduced to these waters. But experts suspect aquarium owners of dumping unwanted specimens into the ocean and they may have been released from large aquarium facilities as the result of hurricane activity.
Lion fish have been spotted, photographed or documented from Miami north to North Carolina, The Gulf of Mexico, Bermuda, Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panamá, Columbia and Venezuela. At this time it is not known how well they tolerate cooler water temperatures. As a result predicting the limits of their potential territory is difficult.
There does appear to be one containment method on the horizon – eat them. They are reported to be quite tasty. A Lionfish cookbook has been published and can be found at:
Although it much more convenient to see these beauties in the Atlantic/Caribbean, Most would rather people have to travel to the western Pacific for the view. Only time will tell what the future hold for this beautiful invader.
All images and content are Copyright, Tom Szabo, (c) 2011