Lionfish have arrived in ever-increasing numbers around the island of Jamaica. Most marine scientists believe that lionfish entered Caribbean waters after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, when at least six lionfish “escaped” from an aquarium into the open sea. The red lionfish, (Pterois volitans), migrated southward throughout the Caribbean Sea. By 2006, the reefs around Jamaica became a safe harbour for this very invasive species of fish. Now, in 2010, almost every reef in Jamaica has uncounted numbers of lionfish flourishing at the expense of smaller marine fish, shrimp, crabs and other crustaceans. Studies have shown that one lionfish can consume 20 to 30 smaller reef fish in less than an hour. All the lionfish has to do is wave its mesmerizing, feather-like fins, and smaller reef fish are lured to the lionfish’s waiting mouth.
Unless some measures are taken now, Jamaica’s reefs and living treasures of the sea will be forever changed. Jamaican reefs are already in a very fragile and vulnerable condition, given problems of coastal pollution, over-fishing and shore-line development. The lionfish could add a death blow to many of the Jamaican and other Caribbean reef fish unless actions are taken NOW to impede or reduce their numbers. While there are no easy solutions or quick fixes to this growing lionfish menace, there are some actions being taken to awaken public interest regarding the exponential growth of lionfish populations in Jamaican reefs.
On April 30, 2010, the White River Fisherman’s Coop held its annual fish fry, and this year served fried and steamed lionfish to community members, Group 81 U.S. Peace Corps trainees, and other guests. Earlier that morning, Group 81 environmental Peace Corps trainees heard a presentation by Mel Tennant on turtle monitoring. Dr. Dayne Buddo from the Centre for Marine Sciences, University of West Indies, also provided remarks on invasive marine species and the related release of foreign vessels’ ballast water in Jamaican ports. The Jamaican Marine Symposium held at Couples Sans Souci concluded with a demonstration by Nakle Hado on the safe handling and cleaning of captured lionfish.
Each of the U.S. Peace Corps trainees present was given the opportunity to carefully cut off a lionfish’s poisonous spines with scissors and then scale and clean the fish. The key to cleaning lionfish is to carefully remove all their poisonous dorsal and anal spines, and then safely dispose of the poisonous spines. It is important to remember that lionfish can inflict a very painful “sting” with each of these poisonous spines. If injected with lionfish venom, immediately apply hot water to the affected area and seek medical attention.
Another effort to raise public awareness of the lionfish explosion in Jamaican reefs was held in Negril, Jamaica from May 20-22, 2010. Teams of local Jamaican fishermen competed to see how many lion fish they could catch during the three day competition. Negril resorts, hotels and private organizations provided awards for the fishermen who caught the most lionfish. By Saturday evening when the awards were presented, 1,446 lionfish of varying sizes had been caught by all the fishermen. Dr. Christopher Tufton, Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries was introduced at the awards ceremony by Dr. Charles Eyles, Chairman of the Montego Bay Marine Park Trust. In his introduction, Dr. Eyles noted that: “…lionfish numbers have grown exponentially in Jamaican reefs. After eighteen months to two years, one lionfish can spawn up to 30,000 eggs at least twice a year, and with few predators, lionfish survival rates are very high.” (Photo below) Dr. Tufton inspects a lionfish while Brian Zane, Manager of the Montego Bay Marine Park Trust looks on.)
Then, Dr. Christopher Tufton, Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries spoke to assembled fishermen, hotel guests and concerned Jamaicans. He noted the growing menace of lionfish in Jamaican reefs, the need to curb or control their numbers, and the reality that lionfish are safe and tasty to eat once their poisonous spines have been removed. Dr. Tufton even suggested that more medical research might be conducted on the lionfish, (and other members of the Scorpionfish family, Scorpaenidae), in hopes that lionfish venom might be used to treat certain cancers and other serious medical conditions. Certainly, related research with marine cone snail venom has shown great promise in the treatment of certain cancers and neurological disorders.
So, the next time you have the opportunity, attend one of the Jamaican lionfish hunts, tentatively scheduled in Montego Bay and other reef locales. Plan to see hundreds of lionfish caught during each such culling effort. The lionfish will range in size from a few inches (juveniles) to those as large as 15 inches. Record-size lionfish can be up to 18 inches long and weigh up to 2.6 pounds. While such culling events will undoubtedly focus attention on the growing lionfish menace, there seem to be few measures and mechanisms currently in place to effectively control or contain the explosion of lionfish throughout the Caribbean. The few known natural predators in Jamaican reefs, such as Nassau groupers (Epinephelus striatus Bloch, 1792), are too few in number to stem the lionfish invasion. Attempts to net lionfish can be very difficult, too, since red lionfish often descend to depths of 260 feet or hide under reef shelves.
You can help. As a plea to all marine biologists and other scientists, fishermen and other concerned Jamaicans, submit your ideas on effective ways to curb or control the explosion of lionfish in Jamaican and other Caribbean waters. We promise to post some of your best ideas on our website: www. mbmp.org.
Tub of Trouble – Lionfish caught off Negril, Jamaica.