National Geographic Young Explorer Erin Spencer will spend one month in the Florida Keys documenting efforts by beachside locals to contain a recent and dangerous influx of invasive lionfish. Follow along with The Lionfish Project on Explorers Journal, Erin’s project website, Facebook page, and Twitter.
There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding the lionfish invasion in the Western Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico. With the invasion being a relatively new phenomenon (at least to most people), there’s bound to be some misinformation flying around. Here are the top five misconception about lionfish and the facts behind them. Knowing the truth behind lionfish puts us one step closer to figuring out a solution to the problem!
Myth #1: Lionfish are poisonous.
Truth: Lionfish are venomous, not poisonous– there is a difference. Although both venomous and poisonous animals produce a toxin that can be harmful to other organisms, the method of delivery is different. Venomous organisms use a specific apparatus like spines or teeth to inject their toxin. Poisonous organisms, on the other hand, require their victim to ingest or absorb the toxin. Lionfish possess venomous dorsal, pelvic, and anal spines that deliver toxin through an unpleasant puncture wound. Each spine is surrounded by a loose sheath that is pushed down during envonemation, compressing two venom glands located down then length of the spine. Neurotoxic venom then travels through two parallel grooves up the spine and into an unhappy victim. On the bright side, this means that as long as you stay away from the spines, you’re good to go!
Myth #2: Lionfish were released in the Atlantic when an aquarium flooded during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Truth: Lionfish were first spotted near Dania, Florida in 1985, years before Hurricane Andrew. The initial source of the invasion can be pinpointed to personal aquarium releases, probably by people who’s lionfish were getting too big for the tank or eating the other fish. A recent study suggests that the invasion can be narrowed to just eight or twelve individuals who interbred. Over time, larvae dispersed up the east coast of the United States and the Caribbean through oceanic currents, bringing the lionfish invasion to its current size and severity.
Myth #3: Predators can be trained to hunt lionfish on their own.
Truth: There have been numerous instances of predators such as sharks, eels, and grouper feasting on lionfish – but typically only after a diver has offered the lionfish to them first. This raises concerns due to the inherent risks involved with teaching wild animals to see humans and expect a free meal. There have even been reports of sharks, eels, and barracuda becoming aggressive towards lionfish hunters in anticipation of handouts. Additionally, a recently released study that examined lionfish/predator abundance throughout the Caribbean over the course of three years determined that there was no correlation between native predator densities and lionfish densities, suggesting that native predators do not influence the successful invasion of lionfish. As great as it would be to have native predators feasting on these invaders, it looks like humans are really the only true lionfish predators in their invasive territory.
Myth #4: You can’t eat lionfish.
Truth: Because lionfish are venomous, not poisonous (see above!), there is no harm in eating the lionfish meat. Once you dispose of the spines, there is no risk of envenomation, and you’re free to prepare your lionfish as you choose. Fortunately for the eco-friendly fish lovers out there, lionfish are delicious. Their white, buttery meat lends itself to any number of different recipes. In fact, there are many restaurants throughout the Caribbean and southern United States that are featuring lionfish on their menus to promote awareness while satisfying customers. Check out last week’s blog post for a few of my favorite lionfish recipes.
Myth #5: There’s nothing we can do.
Truth: They may be excellent invaders, but locals throughout the non-native range have developed some pretty ingenious solutions—and it’s working. Dive operations remove lionfish regularly, meaning you’ll be hard pressed to find lionfish on most of the popular dive sites. Lionfish derbies, or fishing competitions that award prizes for the largest, smallest, and most lionfish captured, are becoming more popular and are an excellent way to clean the reef and spread awareness. From 2009-2012, derbies run by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) removed a grand total 0f 10,231 lionfish, and that number is rising. Additionally, a mini-industry has arisen around these spiny invaders as individuals develop increasingly more effective tools for removal. Although many researchers agree that complete eradication of lionfish is impossible, there are certainly ways to keep the population in check and protect the native marine ecosystems of the Western Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean.