Lionfish invasion of Caribbean reefs

The Washington-based World Resources Institute (WRI) says the Lionfish, an invasive marine species, have rapidly spread across the waters of the Caribbean, seriously threatening coral reefs.

“Because of their role in upsetting the ecological balance of coral reef ecosystems, the rapid growth in the populations of these fish poses a grave threat to the region’s coral reefs,” WRI said.

“Consequently, the region’s fishing and tourism industries, which depend on coral reefs, may also be at risk,” it added, stating that governments across the region are trying to respond to the lionfish invasion by developing new campaigns and cooperation strategies that could pose important lessons for how to deal with invasive marine species in the future.

WRI said two species of lionfish, Pterois volitans and P. Miles, are responsible for this recent and growing threat to Atlantic and Caribbean reefs.

Native to the Indo-Pacific, these species’ colorful and dramatic appearance make them popular ornamental fishes in saltwater aquariums.

Though no one is certain how or when the lionfish invasion began, WRI said strong evidence suggests that people first introduced lionfish to the Atlantic along the southeastern coast of Florida, where they were first sighted in 1985.

By 2001, WRI said people reported sightings in waters off the coasts of Georgia, the Carolinas, and Bermuda.

“Over the last decade, lionfish population densities have increased in these areas and these species have spread southward, and are now established throughout much of the Caribbean,” it said.

“These fish pose a serious threat to reef fish populations across the region, and thus to coral reef ecosystems and the people who depend on them,” it added.

With venomous spines, WRI said lionfish have few natural predators in their native habitat, and no native predators in the Atlantic and Caribbean region.

It said they are voracious hunters, known to consume more than 50 other species of fish in the region.

“In a region where more than 42 million people are very dependent on coral reefs for food and livelihoods, the lionfish invasion could have serious socioeconomic implications,” WRI said.

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