An invasive species can be a plant, fungus, land animal or marine animal that is not native to a specific location. Invasive species have the ability to spread in huge numbers and are believed to cause huge amounts of damage to the environment, economy and even the health of humans and other animals.
The Lionfish, (Pterois volitans and P. miles) is an invasive species that is found in the surrounding waters of Curacao since 2009, which is almost 25 years after they were introduced off the coast of South Florida in 1985. Lionfish were originally from the Indo-Pacific area but now they are well established in The Caribbean Sea, North Western Atlantic, South Western Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. Due to the speed at which this species is growing and the way they negatively impact native fish communities, they are now considered as one of the biggest threats to the native reef systems surrounding the beautiful Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao.
Lionfish have large venomous spines, which makes them a bad choice for possible predators as well as humans. The venom can cause severe pain, vomiting, headaches and difficulties breathing to anyone who gets stung. The only way to alleviate this pain is by submerging the affected area into water that is as hot as you can tolerate, without burning the skin and leaving it for 60 to 90 minutes. Therefore, special training and safety precautions need to be used when hunting Lionfish.
Damage Caused By Lionfish
Even though this invasive species is absolutely fascinating to observe and seem to glide gracefully through the water, Lionfish are causing untold damage to the reefs surrounding Curacao. They have adapted effortlessly to this environment and due to their brightly coloured bodies, they attract junvenile fish, which serves as their perfect meal. The sheer number of Lionfish consuming other species of fish is so high that this is affecting the whole underwater ecosystem. These fish would otherwise be grazing off the reef, keeping it healthy and continuously growing.
Lionfish have become known as a ‘Super Predator’ consuming four times their average body weight every day. They are not selective and certainly eat anything that gets in its way, including Mahi Mahi, Grouper, Snapper and Wahoo. With no known predators, the lionfish is dominating Curacao’s pristine and spotless fringing reefs. In fact, Substation Curacao in collaboration with the California Academy of Sciences recorded them existing as deep as 800ft, just off the shoreline of the Curacao Sea Aquarium Park.
Research has shown that female Lionfish have the ability to lay up to 2 million eggs per year and without any natural predators, there is no stopping this invasive species from spreading. Additionally, these egg sacs have a chemical within them, which prevents other species from eating them.
Although spear fishing in the waters around Curacao is forbidden, the PPC (Public Prosecution of Curacao) do recognise the devastating effects that lionfish have on the marine environment and also realise the urgency to fight against this invasive species. In 2012, the PPC announced that they would NOT prosecute against organized groups of hunters within territorial waters, if the approved rules are followed.
Even to this day, the war against lionfish rages on and continues to challenge hunters who give up their free time to help prevent more damage to the reefs and in turn, the local economy. There are many organised groups and dive schools that provide lessons on how to safely search for and catch lionfish without disturbing or harming the surrounding reef. Certain dive schools also teach you how to carefully remove the spines and prepare it, making it the perfect meal for any fish lover.
Lionfish, a Sustainable Industry
There are a huge number of negatives attached to lionfish, however there is one big positive, it is a sustainable industry! Numerous restaurants on Curaçao such as Sol Food in Westpunt, Iguana Cafe in downtown Willemstad and Pirate Bay in Piscadera, are now serving lionfish because of the increasing consumer demand due to its delectable taste and high nutrition value (high in Omega 3). In fact, the meat from lionfish can be used in a whole range of dishes including fritters, tacos, ceviche and even simply pan-fried with a drizzle of lemon.
Another wonderful example is Lisette Kreus, a passionate diver and owner of Lionfish Caribbean. Like a lot of businesses, the concept of Lionfish Caribbean was originally developed to specialize in education and safe hunting practices. However, it quickly grew into something much more. In addition to teaching, Lisette sells her catch to many local restaurants, organizes cool culinary events and makes beautiful jewelry using Lionfish fins!
Lisette says, “the reason why divers and snorkelers find Lionfish so alluring also makes for incredible jewelry designs… which helps conserve the reef by bringing awareness to the issue.” Lisette went on to say, “We will never get rid of them, but at least we can catch them, serve them and ultimately create a viable and sustainable fishing industry focused on Lionfish so that the over-fished populations can take a breath to re-populate.”
When you don’t see lionfish regularly, you will immediately be enthralled when snorkeling or scuba diving by the vibrant red, white and black camouflage patterns found on the lionfish tail, mixed with the translucent spines. The uniqueness of the jewelry almost guarantees that you will be questioned where you got it from, providing the perfect opportunity for you to explain the impact of the lionfish in the Caribbean and ultimately spreading awareness of the issue.
So, “Dive In”… and make your next destination Curaçao! The Lionfish are waiting!
Article written by Torben Lonne, Guest Contributer and Editor of Dive.in Magazine.