The lionfish is a favorite of tropical fish tanks across the world. Tourists often squeal with delight to see them in the oceans, because they now know for certain that they are in the tropics. That is if the white sands, turquoise sea and palm trees hadn't already given them the clue. However, it's not native to these waters. No-one had seen one in the Mexican Caribbean until January 2009.
Lionfish should be in the Pacific Ocean, specifically around the Indian Pacific. Their range covers Western Australia, Malayasia, French Polynesia, the Pitcairn Islands, South Korea and Japan. Until recently, it didn't include the Gulf of Mexico and the Mexican Caribbean. Now, it most definitely does. Their numbers have grown to critical level in the waters around Cozumel particularly.
No-one knows why they are here. The major theory is that Hurricane Andrew destroyed an aquarium in Florida, USA, releasing the lionfish into their oceans. They then just migrated down into the Caribbean. However, this view has been challenged by NOAA ecologist James Morris Jr, who was spotting them around Florida as early as 1985. The amended guess then is that Floridean tropical tank owners have been privately releasing the lionfish into the oceans, perhaps when they wanted to close down their tank. This is not unknown. Lionfish have been found as far afield as the waters off Long Island, New York, and in the Mediterranean Sea, both as a result of tropical fish tank owners letting them go. Those captured, in the Caribbean, have been proven, through DNA, to all be descended from the same six or seven fish.
Lionfish are not generally deadly for human beings. They will keep their distance for a start, being extremely wary of us. Even if they did sting a human, with their venomous dorsal fins, the affected area would simply be painful. A good soaking in some warm water would sort that out.
It's only those experiencing an allergic reaction to the venom who need to worry, in the same way as some people aren't good with wasps. That said, the current medical advice is to have a sting checked out at a hospital, just in case.
However, for the smaller marine life, lionfish pose a greater threat than all of the sharks and other natural predators put together. The lionfish's favorite snack are those algae-eating creatures. These help to protect the coral reefs, as a build up of algae could hinder the growth of the reefs. From late afternoon until dawn, lionfish are travelling up and down the coral, eating whole any unfortunate herbivore fish that crosses their path. As many as 185 juvenile native fish a day could be eaten by just one lionfish. This includes some species that were already endangered.
With such a buffet on hand, and no natural predators in the area, the numbers of lionfish are increasing every day. The females can each produce up to 30,000 offspring! The lionfish here are also growing much bigger than their usual 12cm (5"); some as big as 55cm (22") have been seen. Volunteer divers are capturing them and killing them on sight.
Meanwhile, some enterprising local events have been staged, as a way of disposing of lionfish, while also highlighting the situation. Ricardo Gomez Lozano, director of the Cozumel National Marine Park, organized a lionfish tournament recently. Divers and fishers set out to land as many as they could, with the winner being the one with the biggest catch. They were caught live and dropped into ice water, as a humane way of killing them. Tournament over, and this being Mexico, everyone relaxed with a barbecue on the beach.
"This is the beginning of the invasion for us, but we have seen how quickly infestations have developed elsewhere." Ricardo Gomez Lozano warned, "We have to act quickly."
So if you are a fishing enthusiast or a diver and wish to do your bit for the environment, please do come down to Mexico on a lionfish hunt. Your coral reef needs you! For safe, effective hunting and cooking of them, please visit the Lionfish Hunter website.