It should be noted that despite their beauty, they constitute an important threat to lreef ecosystems all around Puerto Rico, since it has no local predators to control its populations, it reproduces well in our waters and their survival rate is very high. These factors have resulted in an alarming increase in their numbers throughout the Caribbean. This invasive species, thought to have ended up in the Atlantic and the Caribbean by being either inadvertently released from personal aquariums or transported by ships or boats, joins the list of invasive species, such as the mongoose and the iguana, that are altering the viequense flora and fauna.
Although there has been a lot of talk about the Lion Fish, much of the information being passed around is incorrect. Let’s examine the reality of this fish that has invaded our seas.
Lion Fish Pterois volitans
Maximum size – 18 inches (the largest captured in Puerto Rico, 10 inches).
Recent studies suggest that they grow faster and larger in our waters than they do in their natural habitat.
Age – the oldest known is 8; some scientists think that they can live decades like other members of the Scorpion-fish family.
Diet – they are voracious predators that surprise their prey. Fish such as grouper, parrot fish, yellowtail snapper, hog-fish, as well as some crustaceans like the barber shrimp or the arrow crab have been found in their stomach. It eats more than other fish of its size; consuming prey as big as half the size of its body. Local fish are not familiarized with the Lion Fish and their form of attack; humans are their only predator in our local waters.
Reproduction – the biggest threat the Lion Fish presents to local ecosystems is due to its efficient reproductive strategy. The Lion Fish reaches sexual maturity at an early age and can reproduce every 4 or 5 days throughout the year. The female produces two gelatinous masses that can contain over 30,000 eggs. After the male fertilizes them they can float together for up to two weeks.
Habitat – Lion Fish have been found at various depths – from several feet near the shore up to depths of hundreds of feet. It is most often sighted at sunrise or sunset. They are more common on the reef, usually under the overhangs between underwater caves and camouflaged at the corals edge. Most of the specimens reported in Puerto Rico were from Rincón, Cabo Rojo and San Juan; recently, more have been reported for Vieques.
Lion Fish toxin is not considered lethal. No deaths have been confirmed because of the fish venom; However, strong allergic reactions or infections may occur which could cause serious effects, including death if the person does not receive medical treatment. The venom is located at the base of the fish bones covered by tissue in the dorsal, anal and pelvic spines. The elaborate pectoral spines that stand out from their sides do not contain venom. When the spines are introduced you can see a membrane that exposes the poisonous tissue.
The venom remains active in cold temperatures and decomposes at very high temperatures.
Lion Fish toxin is similar to that of the Scorpion fish or rascazo, which abounds in Vieques.
Intoxication symptoms include:
Acute and increasing pain and swelling in the area which develops within the first five minutes after being stung and will increase in intensity during the following hour (may continue increasing for 2 or 3 hours unless treated) may last up to twelve hours.
Headaches, dizziness and allergic reactions have been reported in extreme cases.
In serious cases blisters and necrosis (tissue death) could occur.
Paralysis or member damage has been reported.
The intensity of the reaction depends on the size of the fish and the amount of venom injected.
Seek medical attention as soon as possible. Although is not considered fatal, reaction to the toxin will be less severe if treated. Immediately apply hot but not boiling water, to the affected area. Hot water is considered to be one of the best first aid practices to soothe the pain and break down the poison.
Raise the affected area and clean the wound.
Do not insert, suck or cut the wound.
Medication is not recommended unless prescribed by a health professional.
There is no specific antidote for the toxin, although there is an antitoxin for the venom of the Stone Fish (a related species). Hospitals and health centers have treatments to calm the pain and other reactions.
What to do with the Lion Fish?
If you see it alive in a trap or a fishhook, kill it but do not touch it.
It is completely legal to spear this species. Be careful when handling the harpoon.
Report sightings and captures to the authorities and appropriate agencies.
Do not take or capture it if you are not trained to so.
Do not touch the spines even if the fish is dead, since the poison could still be effective.
Lion Fish is edible and eaten in many parts of the world. Their meat is comparable to that of the Hogfish, and is considered excellent for ceviche.
There is a very specific way to prepare it and dispose of the body, which requires great care and attention. If is frozen, the poison may remain active, so remove and discard the spines carefully before trying to cook a Lion Fish
Lionfish population decline in Jamaica:
KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — Jamaica is reporting a big decline in sightings of lionfish, the voracious invasive species that has been wreaking havoc on regional reefs for years and wolfing down native juvenile fish and crustaceans.
Some four years after a national campaign got started to slash numbers of the candy-striped predator with a mane of venomous spines, Jamaica's National Environment and Planning Agency is reporting a 66 percent drop in sightings of lionfish in coastal waters with depths of 75 feet (23 meters).
Dayne Buddo, a Jamaican marine ecologist who focuses on marine invaders at the Caribbean island's University of the West Indies, attributes much of the local decrease in sightings to a growing appetite for their fillets. He said Sunday that Jamaican fishermen are now selling lionfish briskly at markets. In contrast, a few years ago island fishermen "didn't want to mess" with the exotic fish with spines that can deliver a very painful sting.
"After learning how to handle them, the fishermen have definitely been going after them harder, especially spear fishermen. I believe persons here have caught on to the whole idea of consuming them," Buddo said in a phone interview.
Lionfish, a tropical native of the Indian and Pacific oceans likely introduced through the pet trade, have been colonizing swaths of the Caribbean and Atlantic for years - from the U.S. Eastern Seaboard and the hard-hit Bahamas to the Gulf of Mexico. They have been such a worrying problem that divers in the Caribbean and Florida are encouraged to capture them whenever they can to protect reefs and native marine life already burdened by pollution, overfishing and the effects of climate change.
Across the region, governments, conservation groups and dive shops have been sponsoring fishing tournaments and other efforts to go after slow-swimming lionfish to try and stave off an already severe crisis. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration launched a campaign in 2010 urging the U.S. public to "eat sustainable, eat lionfish!"
But just because shallow waters hugging coastlines have seen declines, the fast-breeding species is hardly on the way out. Fat, football-sized lionfish are daily caught in fishing pots set in deeper waters that spear fishermen and recreational divers never see.
In Jamaica, targeted efforts to remove them are ongoing even as a national lionfish project financed by the Global Environment Facility and the U.N. Environment Program project recently ran its course after four-and-a-half years.
"I don't think we'll ever get rid of it, but I think for the most part we can control it, especially in marine protected areas where people are going after it very intensively and consistently," Buddo said.
It remains to be seen exactly how much impact fishing and marketing of lionfish meat can have. For now, it's the biggest hope around. Scientists are still researching what keeps lionfish in check in their native range. In the Caribbean and the Atlantic, they have no natural predators to keep their ballooning numbers in check.
David McFadden on Twitter: http://twitter.com/dmcfadd