Article by Alex Pulice
It may surprise you to hear that the most threatening creatures roaming the reefs of the Florida Keys are not sharks.
A pop-culture fixation on shark attacks has created a rampant fear of the oceanic predators that seems unwarranted given that in 2016 of the 43 North American shark attacks, none were fatal. While the general public fears sharks, marine scientists fear lionfish.
Although they are not poisonous to humans, Pterois volitans, known more commonly as lionfish, have become a terror in many Caribbean locations over the past few years. Known for their unique beauty and venomous spines, lionfish are native of the Indo-Pacific. They are popular aquarium fish.
It is unknown exactly how lionfish were introduced to the Atlantic ecosystem, but since January 2009 Florida has witnessed a massive population growth of the invasive species. Lionfish are now a near-apex predator occupying coral reef ecosystems.
Lionfish are problematic for numerous reasons:
- They have no natural predators in the Caribbean. Typical apex reef predators such as sharks and grouper don’t eat lionfish due to their venomous spines.
- They are indiscriminate predators that consume more than 70 species of reef fish, and they can eat up to 30 times their own stomach volume.
- They can reproduce every four days, and release up to 30,000 eggs per spawn. Because of this their population has grown exponentially over the past few years.
- Scientists estimate that lionfish have the ability to reduce juvenile fish populations on coral reefs by as much as 90% in a five-week span.
The combination of rapid population growth, invulnerability, and expansive food intake presents a unique new threat to marine life in Florida and other Caribbean regions.
In Florida, local dive shops are helping to lead the charge against the lionfish invasion. South Point Divers employee David Ahlgrim provided some insight into his experience with lionfish, and the burgeoning lionfish hunting industry.
“When I’m in the water I kill every lionfish I see. They’re not native here. They kill our baby fish, and they eat a lot more than they actually weigh,” he said.
When asked whether lionfish have had a visible effect on marine life in Key West over the past couple years, Ahlgrim stated that although he has not seen a huge change yet, he is nervous for how it could impact the region in the future.
“I see maybe one lionfish every other day I go diving down here. It hasn’t noticeably affected our fish population yet, but I expect in the next year or two for there to be a steep decline.” Ahlgrim stated. He then stated “in Sarasota you see lionfish all over the place. You jump in the water and they scatter, you can see hundreds of them.”
Despite the seemingly bleak outlook, Ahlgrim was confident that scuba businesses would be able to survive the damaging effects of lionfish population growth, and potentially help to curb it.
Ahlgrim, along with many marine scientists, believes that the solution to the lionfish problem in Florida and the Caribbean is human intervention. Dive shops have recognized the significant threat that lionfish pose, and have begun to help aid in the eradication of the invasive species.
“I expect more dive shops to begin opening up to go out and hunt lionfish. Some dive shops already take people out hunt them, and I expect that you’ll see businesses opening up here in Key West and in other places specifically geared towards lionfish hunting,” he said.
It remains to be seen whether or not human intervention will be able to help protect native marine life in the region, but the process of hunting the invasive lionfish has begun.
Feature Image: Nathan Rupert