The Hunt for Invasive Lionfish Begins

A view at the troublesome invasive lionfish. Photo by Erin Spencer.
A view at the troublesome invasive lionfish. Photo by Erin Spencer.

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

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Yesterday I found myself fifty feet below the ocean surface, staring straight into the eyes of a fierce predator. He puffed up his red and white spines dramatically as I crept closer, trying to move slowly and steady my breathing.

I was face-to-face with a lionfish, a venomous reef fish originally found in the Indo-Pacific. They are invasive here in the Western Atlantic, as well as throughout the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Don’t let looks deceive you- although the fish is stunningly beautiful, it can absolutely wreak havoc on native reefs. Some areas in the Bahamas have seen a 95% decrease in native fish numbers in lionfish-infested areas. That’s a pretty harrowing statistic.

A close up view of the lionfish before they are prepared for dinner. Photo by Erin Spencer.
A close up view of the lionfish before they are prepared for dinner. Photo by Erin Spencer.

So what makes lionfish so dangerous? Essentially, they are eating and breeding machines. Through stomach content analysis, scientists have found that lionfish prey on 70 different species of fish and crustaceans, and can even eat something half their size. Many of their prey species are commercially important reef fish such as juvenile snapper and grouper.

Mature females can produce 30,000 eggs every 4 days, meaning that one female and all her offspring can produce 8.1 quintillion eggs in just three months.

As an aspiring marine scientist and water enthusiast, I spend most of my time learning about how we can save our oceans. I thought the goal was to save fish, not kill them. But in the case of the lionfish, something must be done to protect native reef ecosystems. So, like many of the Florida Keys locals dedicated to keeping lionfish off the reef, yesterday I donned my SCUBA gear to go lionfish hunting.

 

After each lionfish is caught, it is placed in a thick plastic bag with a hard lid to help protect the diver from stings. Photo by Allison Scheflow.
After each lionfish is caught, it is placed in a thick plastic bag with a hard lid to help protect the diver from stings. Photo by Allison Scheflow.

Under the instruction of Mike Ryan of Horizon Divers in Key Largo, I had learned how to use safely and effectively remove lionfish from the reef. So yesterday, I joined Caption Slonim of Curt-a-Sea Aquatic Adventures to target and remove lionfish from a few coral heads off of Islamorada. At the end of the day, we had removed half a dozen lionfish from a single coral head, and brought the catch home for a tasty dinner. As we left the site, I couldn’t help but imagine all of the young native fish that were spared with each lionfish we removed.

The lionfish problem is a serious one, and it won’t go away without a lot of hard work. It will take passionate individuals who care about the health of their native marine ecosystems to remove lionfish any way they can. Fortunately, diving for lionfish is such fun, and eating them is even better!

Showing off my first captured lionfish. Photo by Kelli Slonim.
Showing off my first captured lionfish. Photo by Kelli Slonim.

 

NEXT: Pictures: Sharks Taught to Hunt Alien Lionfish

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Erin Spencer is a National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee and an undergraduate student at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Her research focuses on local responses to invasive lionfish in the Florida Keys, mainly highlighting individuals who are developing unique ways to address the lionfish problem. Previously, she interned in the National Geographic Digital Media Travel department.