Lionfish: The New Pirate of the Caribbean

January 4, 2017

First introduced into the Atlantic in the 1980s, the eye-catching invader threatens marine ecosystems in the Caribbean and livelihoods that depend on them.

The lionfish is an undeniable head-turner. With its vibrant - and venomous - spines radiating from its head like a lion’s mane, its voracious appetite and incredible resilience makes it the perfect hunter, a king in the aquatic jungle. However, for the millions living within the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico and the Western Atlantic, they are in the wrong jungle.

For the past 3 decades, the lionfish have made these waters their home, and with no natural predator, they have had a devastating impact on native fish populations. Experts widely agree that total eradication is impossible, but local communities are fighting back in innovative ways, as Keiko Ashida Tao, Environmental Specialist for the World Bank, explains.

Question: How has the lionfish impacted the marine ecosystem?

Keiko Ashida Tao: After initial sightings in the mid-1980s off the coast of Florida, lionfish populations have now spread along over 5,000 miles of the east coast from as far north as Rhode Island, all the way down to Sao Paulo in Brazil. And the impact has been devastating, for two main reasons:

  1. It is an indiscriminate hunter and preys on over 60 native species, more specifically the juvenile populations. And these eating sprees are horrifyingly effective - the lionfish can reduce native fish population by an average of 79% over a 5-week period, hunting in groups and continuing to feed until all the prey in one area have been wiped out.
  2. The lionfish is built to survive. Not only does the species reproduce at an alarming rate, with multiple spawnings each month, year round, lionfish can also survive for up to three months without eating, live at depths of up to 1000ft (300m) as well in low-saline waters. Combine this adaptability with rising sea temperatures and global warming could create yet more favorable habitat conditions, spreading the lionfish yet further across the east coast.

Q: What is the wider impact of this invasion?

K: Well, of course, the impact of the lionfish invasion is not limited to the native species which now make up their prey. Rather, the survival of the marine ecosystems within the affected area, and the local economies which depend on them, are in question.

Let’s take Belize as an example. Here, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, (the second longest barrier reef in the world after the Great Barrier Reef), provides critical natural resources and environmental services to the local economy. In fact, it’s estimated that these services (fishing, tourism, shoreline protection) provided by the reef, and the mangroves which surround it, contribute between 15-22% of annual GDP in Belize. In dollar terms, that’s between US$ 395-559 million a year.

But, the reef is in a bad shape, and around two-thirds is reported to be in poor to critical condition, predominantly due to the impacts of climate change (bleaching, increased acidification, higher sea temperatures etc) and anthropogenic stressors such as agricultural run-off, sedimentation and overfishing. For the reef to recover, plentiful sea life in and around the coral reefs is key. In fact, a study on corals in the Caribbean discovered that when “grazer” populations are abundant (parrotfish and surgeonfish for example), the reefs maintain a good balance of algae and are healthy, therefore are more likely to recover from hurricane and bleaching damages than where grazer numbers were depleted. Consequently, controlling the population of invasive lionfish is critical to addressing ecological imbalances and regaining a healthy reef that nourishes and harbors numerous marine species

" There is increasing evidence that, once lionfish numbers are reduced below the threshold, native fish populations start to recover. "

Keiko Ashida Tao

Environmental Specialist for the World Bank

Q: Can the lionfish be eliminated?

K: In short, no. Lionfish densities in the Atlantic are up to ten times those found in its native Indonesia, so it is widely accepted that the only solution is maintaining lionfish populations below the threshold at which native fish populations can survive.

Q: How can this be achieved?

K: There is increasing evidence that, once lionfish numbers are reduced below the threshold, native fish populations start to recover. One of our first line of defense against this invasive species are fishers and divers - organizing ‘Lionfish derbies’ to catch and remove as many as possible, and there is even a specific PADI course to learn essential capturing techniques. However, the challenge is to find sustainable approaches to keep lionfish at manageable levels and provide incentives for fishing communities to continue catching them.

Q: Like what?

K: Taking Belize as an example, we have identified two main value chains within the local market.  First of all is to promote the consumption of lionfish, which would provide an income source for fishers, seafood vendors as well as restaurants and chefs. “Eat ‘em to Beat ‘em” as it were.

The second value chain is less straight forward, but has already increased the value of caught lionfish by 45% in Belize, the Bahamas, Grenada and St Vincent & the Grenadines, and that’s through lionfish jewelry.

Given that the lionfish’s fins and spines are discarded parts, the cost of making jewelry is minimal, and the finished products (dyed and reshaped into earrings, necklaces and keyrings) are already being sold in Belize and overseas.

Q: How is this having an impact in Belize?

K:  To date, the Belize Lionfish Jewelry Group is currently made up of 19 women from 7 fishing communities, providing income for a total of 78 people from their combined households. And the jewelry market has other benefits too, creating new opportunities to earn a living, raising awareness about the lionfish threat, and empowering local women through training and marketing assistance to make their businesses sustainable. With the support from the Bank and financing from the Japan Social Development Fund (JSDF), the Group is expanding their businesses and intending to involve more women to learn and benefit from the initiative. The JSDF project is supporting more than a dozen other community-based initiatives like this in Belize to promote viable and sustainable natural resource-based livelihoods. Each of them has an extraordinary story to tell about their livelihoods and approach towards the environment.