LIONFISH CONTAINMENT & DISSECTION
Lionfish are an invasive species in the Caribbean native to the Indo-Pacific. These are venomous organisms that belong in the fish family Scorpaenidae. But that is not why they pose such a threat to our coral reef ecosystems…
Due to their invasiveness, lionfish are not recognized as prey by predators. Although species of sharks, large groupers, barracudas, etc. do exist in the Atlantic as they do in the Pacific, the predators in the Caribbean simply do not perceive these colorful fish as a potential meal. This pretty much gives lionfish a free pass of existence. Not having to worry about being devoured out of nowhere, these fish are able to feed freely. Lionfish do not discriminate, and they will eat anything and everything that fits in their large mouths. They have different predation mechanisms that range from ambush techniques to blowing a jet of water and bubbles that stuns and confuses their prey. Lionfish have decimated the juvenile populations of important algae grazers such as snappers and parrotfish, which lands another hard blow on our already vulnerable and mostly macroalgae-overgrown reefs.
Additionally, females lay around 100,000 eggs every 3 to 4 days. This, added to lionfish not being recognized as prey by our native predators, has made lionfish populations truly experience a boom, which is like having little vicious lawnmowers who devour many different species of economically and ecologically important species, reproducing every week and engaging the reef in a reign of terror.
We acknowledge the immense pressure the presence of lionfish poses on our vulnerable ecosystems, so we have established a lionfish containment program that not only aims to remove these vicious little predators from our reefs but also aims to understand and quantify the impact they pose on our reefs.
How do we do it? We start by training anyone who’d like to become a lionfish spearer on the Lionfish 101 and the basics of using a spear underwater by practicing with moving and static objects prior to engaging in containment dives. Once underwater, we try to cull and remove as many lionfish as we can in the most humane and efficient way (kill shots). All the fish removed from the reef are brought back to the scientific station to perform dissections on every single one of them.
The main objective is to identify what the lionfish are feeding on on the Cayos reefs, so we examine the stomach content of each specimen to determine what species they are feeding on, how often they are feeding, if there is a differentiation between strata and different depths, age (of sexual maturity), developmental stage, etc. This information will help us to make better decisions with regards to management of this invasive species within our MPA.