The Pacific Lionfish on Bonaire
The Pacific Lionfish or Red Lionfish is an invasive carnivore which is both predatory and venomous. It feeds on juvenile fish including grunts, snappers, groupers, and shrimp to name a few. Since these young fish are not yet ready for reproduction, their removal from the food chain can lower the populations of very important ecological and economic species, reducing the healthy and diversity of the reef. Scientists have observed some lionfish eating up to twenty small fish in as little as thirty minutes.
The lionfish may also be hazardous to humans, as their sharp venomous spines will cause an extremely painful sting that could lead to serious health problems, and, in exceptional cases, even death. The lionfish are prolific reproducers and have no natural predators in the Caribbean, although groupers reportedly may eat them. Lionfish are recognized by their reddish brown and white banding patterns that run vertically on the body. They inhabit coral reefs at depths of 30 to 575 feet/10 to 175 meters.
So exactly how did this Pacific fish end up in the Atlantic and Caribbean? The first sighting of the lionfish in the Atlantic basin was off the coast of Florida in 1992, perhaps escaped from an aquarium during Hurricane Andrew, or released by humans. Since then, it has spread rapidly along the southeast coast of the United States to Bermuda in the east and as far north as New York. In recent years, it has continued to spread south into the Caribbean, along the coasts of Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Venezuela, Colombia, and throughout most of the Caribbean islands.
The first lionfish was reported and confirmed by the Bonaire National BNMP (BNMP) on October 26, 2009. The park rangers immediately implemented a plan to remove as many lionfish as possible to and educate the public about how they can help. The most important aspect of this program is the accurate marking and reporting of fish to the BNMP, so the removal team can locate, catch, and remove the lionfish for further research and DNA testing.
Many visiting divers wish to help with the fight against this invasive fish. Since removing these fish can cause serious stings, it's best to leave removal to those who have been trained. Instead, all visiting divers should note the dive site, depth, distance and direction from the entry or the buoy and report it to the BNMP or your dive operator as soon as possible.
Be extremely careful. The spines of the lionfish are highly venomous and will cause excruciating pain when stung. If stung, abort the dive immediately, put the wound in hot water, as hot as can be tolerated, and seek medical attention.
Limit your activity where you see lionfish and resist the temptation to take pictures. Such activities in the fish's general area may scare it into hiding, or at least make it more skittish when divers are near, making it more difficult to catch.
Visitors who are spending extended time on Bonaire may volunteer to join the removal team. Contact the BNMP to learn about upcoming workshops at 717-8444.