Battling the invasion of the lionfish

Photo by Neil Hammerschlag

Two options: Use them for science, cook them

Zack Jud reached into the white, waist-high freezer in his laboratory at Florida International University in North Miami.  He lifted out some powder blue plastic trays, then bent further into the freezer and came out with an old, crinkled plastic bag.  It smelled awful.

Inside the bag, was a frozen creature known as a lionfish, orange with inch-long spikes rising from its body in a fan of needles.

With their spectacular looks, lionfish are popular aquarium pets. But they are creating havoc in the waters off the coasts of the southeastern United States, throughout the Caribbean and along the beaches of South America. They are destroying reef communities and devouring little fish that are native to the environment.

“Lionfish are extremely efficient predators, and the mechanisms of their invasion in the Atlantic resonate throughout the entire ecosystem,” said Mark Hixson professor of zoology at Oregon State University, who has been studying lionfish on a three- year grant from the National Science Foundation.

For centuries, lionfish have lived in the Pacific waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Micronesia and western Australia. Cousins of the lethal scorpionfish, they are armed with long poisonous spines that stun their prey.  Lionfish are now making themselves at home throughout the Caribbean and along the east coast of the Americas.  With no known predators and astonishingly quick rates of reproduction, these fish have become a source of great concern in the Western Hemisphere.

Barbra Gonzalez

People are actively seeking ways to get rid of harmful lionfish. Organizations host derbies, or hunting parties where volunteers spend the day spearing, netting or using hook-and-line to catch these fish. Extensive education efforts have been launched for dive boat operators, scuba club members and others who are regularly on the reef to help identify and remove them from the reef.  Florida Sea Grant has been involved in educating the public on this menace. One approach has been to educate spiny lobster fishermen. Lionfish often live in the same rocky, sandy areas as lobster, so the group hands out waterproof rulers that fishermen can use to measure spiny lobster. On the reverse of the ruler there is information on lionfish, including how to report sightings.

“Every local agency is concerned and approaching this issue from different angles,” said Lisa Krimsky, Miami-Dade extension agent of Florida Sea Grant. “From actively removing lionfish to conducting research and educating the public.”

Until recently, efforts focused on trying to stop the spread of these fish. However, scientists agree that eradicating them is all but impossible.  So the question is not how to get rid of them, but how to manage this invasion and, more importantly, what can we learn from the lionfish.

Trying to find new ways to deal with these fish, chef Tricia Ferguson and Lad Akins, the spokesman for Reef Environmental Education Foundation, created the Lionfish Cookbook, designed to develop a market for lionfish. Successfully turning the lionfish  into something people want to eat requires fishermen to learn how to collect and filet it safely; and for consumers to be educated on the nutritional benefits and flavor profile of this mild cod-like taste.

There is another approach. Scientists in India discovered that the venom found on lionfish spines may be useful in medicinal applications.  One study, led by Sri Balasubashini and published in the Journal of Carcinogenenis (2006) showed promise in uses of the lionfish venom as an anti-tumor agent in mice.  The amino acids found in lionfish venom were found to have properties that can cause cell death, which might be able to be targeted to specific cancerous cells.  Further studies are required, but could yield possible breakthroughs in the treatment of cancer.

Another group of scientists is taking advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity lionfish provide to study how a species of fish disperses. Scientists at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science, along with colleagues from Reef Environmental Education Foundation and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, have begun studying this phenomenon.  They are delving into fish evolution, which might tell how other fish populated reefs in the past.  The team also is investigating how new Atlantic lionfish populations interact with each other as they spread out.

New discoveries about lionfish – both good and bad – are occurring nearly as quickly as the lionfish have spread.  Zack Jud and a team from Florida International University’s marine science program were the first to find lionfish moving up into marshy estuaries near Jupiter, Fla., in August 2010. Estuaries, where freshwater and saltwater mix, are important nurseries for marine organisms, including fish like snapper and grouper as well as shrimp and lobster.

“The lionfish could really disrupt the lifecycles of things that are valuable to humans,” said Jud.

At his laboratory, Jud rewrapped the lionfish in the old ice bag. Jud said his biggest concern is what will happen because lionfish can disrupt the lifecycles of animals that are valuable to humans.

“These fish are forever part of our ecosystem,” he said.  “We need to get a better grasp of what that means for all of us.”

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3 responses to “Battling the invasion of the lionfish”

  1. Swafford_2001 says:

    Cool story Barbra!

  2. Melayna Dong says:

    Wow, I always thought these fish were rare and beautiful. I didn’t know people were killing them! However, if these fish can help with cancer treatments and their venom eliminates tumors, it’s good that there an abundance of them. I think more information should be put out about these fish in order to educate people on them. That way, people know what to do when they come across Lion Fish.

  3. Sierra Eboni says:

    Lionfish are so cool to look at. They are definitely unique. I wouldn’t want to eat a Lionfish. If there venom can be used for medicinal means that would be great; especially if it can help cancer patients.