Zoologist/marine biologist, Dr Mark Hixon, on the trail of lionfish in Bahamian waters.
MARSH HARBOUR. Bahamas -- The explosion
of lionfish population in Bahamian waters is “a plague of biblical
proportions stalking the Bahamian economy,” the Reef Conservancy Society
of Abaco is warning.
They are convinced that unless
urgent action is taken it will wreck tourism, fishing and related
It has now been confirmed that
lionfish, known for their voracious appetite for Bahamian marine life,
have been decimating fish that tend the coral reefs.
The loss of herbivorous fish
sets the stage for seaweeds to potentially overwhelm coral reefs and
disrupt the delicate ecological balance in which they exist, studies
Following on the heals of over
fishing, sediment depositions, coral bleaching, and increasing ocean
acidity, “this is of grave concern,” said renown zoologist/marine
biologist, Dr Mark Hixon, a professor at Oregon State University.
Dr Hixon and his group work
from the Perry Institute for Marine Science, Lee Stocking Island, Exuma.
They have a three-year grant from the US National Science Foundation
to study lionfish.
He warned that the rapid
potential of lionfish must now be understood in context with their
to seriously depopulate coral reef ecosystems of other fish.
It is well documented that
over fishing parrotfishes and other herbivores contributes to the death
of reef-building corals. Lionfish are “highly effective” at
The Conservancy said Bahamians
ought to be alarmed as this strikes to the heart of tourism, fishing
and related industries on which the economy of the country stands.
“Tourists come here to see
the turquoise waters, they come to fish and dive and enjoy the beautiful
reefs,” stated the Conservancy. “If theses things go, there will
be no reason for tourists to come anymore. And tourism with its spin-off
industries is the very foundation of our economy.
“When there are no fish out
there to clean the reef, the reef dies and the water turns a dark green;
dead rubble is covered by seaweeds.
“Tourists who come for the
sun, sand and sea will stop coming. Divers are not going to spend all
that money to come here to look at dead reefs. There will be no more
bonefishing and fishing tournaments. Restaurants will have to close.
People will be out of work. It will be chaotic.”
South Abaco Member of
Edison M Key said he was “extremely concerned” since a substantial
amount of the Abaco work force is engaged in tourism, commercial fishing
and support industries.
The Conservancy’s warning
was made all the more dire as lionfish have already started to invade
nursery habitats in mangroves and creeks where marine life breed.
“We found that a single small
lionfish can reduce the number of small fish on a small reef by about
80 per cent in just a few weeks,” said Dr Hixon.
His expertise is the ecology
of coastal marine fishes in temperate and tropical regions. He has
reef fish in The Bahamas for more than two decades. His research was
interrupted in 2007 by the arrival of lionfish.
In an interview Saturday, Dr
Hixon told of other significant findings.
“We are not finding many
native species that seem willing to try to control lionfish naturally,”
he said. “We have tried feeding lionfish to large groupers and sharks
and they do no seem interested.
“Native predatory fish do
not seem to recognize lionfish as even being fish because lionfish look
so weird, and then when they do take a bite they get a mouthful of
spines, so that is a deterrent.
“Moreover, unlike native
Bahamian fish, invasive lionfish have almost no parasites.”
Red lionfish (
native to the Pacific, were first sighted in The Bahamas in 2005.
Having never existed here
and not facing controls normally faced in their native Pacific region,
they are reproducing on an unheard-of scale, said Dr Hixon.
Scientist, Dr Isabelle Cote,
a professor at Simon Fraser University, reported finding nearly 400
per 2.5 acres (hectare) here.
With their reddish and whitish
stripes, a row of spines down their backs, and fan-like fins, these
beautiful creatures are easy to spot. Every spine of the lionfish is
venomous. While no fatalities have been reported, their venom is
Lionfish tend to grow larger
in The Bahamas, investigations show. Football-size specimens have been
reported. Only one of the 15 or so species in the Pacific has been
A “key question,” said
Dr Hixon, is whether whatever keeps lionfish in check in the Pacific
can be employed here using native Atlantic species.
“We are working on that right
now,” he said. “All we can say at this point is that whatever naturally
controls lionfish and keeps them in check in their native Pacific is
very effective, because they are rare there.
“They occur over a broad
range of the tropical Pacific but they are minor players, which is
different from here in The Bahamas where they are everywhere.”
One of the best ways to control
lionfish is to develop an industry for its edible meat, he said. As
cooking de-natures the venom and the tissue is not toxic, it could be
advertise as a conservation dish.
Already lionfish meat is a
hit in high-class restaurants in Chicago and New York. It is said to
taste similar to snapper.
“If we can encourage fisheries
in The Bahamas and see that lionfish are well advertised in the United
States where restaurants are already serving them, then I think we will
have a good thing going,” said Dr Hixon. “It would benefit Bahamian
fishermen and help save the reefs.”
It is uncertain whether
will ever be eradicated from this region.
“The effort should focus
more on control,” he explained. “There are so many lionfish, and
they occur at so many depths and in so many habitats that complete
seems unlikely to me.
“However, if we are able
to implement some strong controls on them and Mother Nature steps up
– let us say a parasite or a disease does attack the lionfish –
then perhaps they could be eradicated.”
A good thing about lionfish
is that they are easy to locate and capture.
“In a localized area, like
a popular fishing reef,” he said, “it is a simple matter of divers
going down with hand nets and sweeping the area periodically.
“It is another reason for
encouraging a fishery. It would be important because it would not just
be people volunteering to save the reefs but people will be going down
to catch lionfish to sell them.”
Abaco fishermen are alarmed
that lionfish have found their way into the mangroves and creeks. A
new paper has documented the same in San Salvador.
“That is really a serious
problem - lionfish in the mangroves and creeks,” said Dr Hixon. “We
have to figure out something to do about this invasion before it causes
a major crisis.”