Lionfish. These red and white striped beauties are dazzling with their bright colours and “lion’s mane”.
But while their appearance may lure you in, make sure you don’t come too close! These fish have 18 long, venomous spines that are used for defence against predators. In fact, they have been known to cause extreme pain for humans, leading to headaches, vomiting and paralysis. Ouch!
Lionfish originate from the Indo-Pacific Ocean, where their predators include many species of large fish and sharks. In the 1980’s, this popular aquarium fish was introduced to the Western Atlantic and Caribbean, where they have quickly become an extremely destructive invasive species.
With no natural predators in these parts of the world, their population has rapidly expanded, destroying marine sanctuaries as it grows. As an invasive species, prey do not recognize lionfish as predators, making it easy for these predators to consume any fish or invertebrate in their path. They easily feast on many vital members of the food chain, causing entire underwater ecosystems to collapse!
And if you think one lionfish sounds dangerous, a single female can lay 50,000 eggs, every 3 days, for up to 30 years!
So what is Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada doing to combat this alien invasion?
For the last few years, the Aquarium has volunteered in the Lionfish Invitational at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary located in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Texas. The Invitational sends dive teams down into the marine sanctuary to remove as many invasive lionfish as possible using a spear fishing technique. While spear fishing is regularly illegal in the sanctuary, special permits are issued for the research team to capture lionfish.
The lionfish caught are tallied, measured, bagged and tagged with labels noting location and time before heading to the lab. The results are then analyzed to determine gut contents, genetics and age.
The work completed at the Lionfish Invitational helps to combat this incredibly successful invasive species while furthering a scientific understanding of the effects on native fish communities and habitats.