In a recent series of guest posts at Marc Bittman’s New York Times blog, ecologist Carl Safina discusses the lovely lionfish, describes how it is wreaking havoc on Atlantic ecosystems, and details what is being and should be done about it.
As he describes in Part 1 of “Scourge of the Lionfish,”
Lionfish are native to the west Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Red Sea; they’re quilled with venomous spines…. Lionfish are here in the Atlantic, it seems, because of owners of living room aquariums who tired of the upkeep but didn’t want to kill their fish. With compassion in their breasts, they released them, in numbers sufficient to get them established. Then—remember the phrase, “balance of nature?” Well…
No native fish in the Atlantic looks like the lionfish, hunts like it, or stings like it. Result: No native fish in the Atlantic recognizes it as a predator. No native fish in the Atlantic gets alarmed when lionfish are on the “hunt,” because a hunting lionfish looks like a drifting piece of seaweed. And no native predator — sharks, say, or barracuda — wants anything to do with those venomous spines.
And so, as I said, there are millions of them. The problem: they’ll eat anything in sight.
In Part 2, he takes us to a catch-the-lionfish derby where fishers compete to snag the most and/or biggest specimens:
Derbies are only part of the solution, of course. There are now millions of lionfish inhabiting the west Atlantic. However, preliminary studies suggest that when divers targeting lionfish hit a patch of reef or a wreck, they can kill more than half the fish, and the fish they get are the larger-sized half.
Contrary to what we learn as kids about letting the little ones go, it’s the biggest fish that are most valuable to a population. They’re the most prolific breeders. So if you want to hurt a population, target the biggest. With lionfish, it makes a sensible enough eradication strategy. (Unfortunately, most fisheries for most kinds of fish do exactly this, a major reason for our widespread fisheries disasters.)
In Part 3, he considers whether Atlantic lionfish might make for a commercially viable fishery (they apparently make for not bad eatin’), and Part 4 offers some closing thoughts. Use the links above to check out the posts for the full story, then watch for Saving the Ocean, a documentary series that will cover this topic on PBS this fall. In the meantime, you can check out prior episodes here.