Should scientists kill the Caribbean lionfish?

by Owen James

Lionfish: The aquarium favourite poses a threat to Florida reefs

Lionfish: The aquarium favourite poses a threat to Florida reefs

We’ve covered the dangers of Caribbean lionfish (Pterois volitans) on AquaDaily before. For those not up-to-speed, the problem is lionfish came to the Caribbean either via international shipping or else release from hobbyists (I suspect the former) and they are now said to be devastating local fish populations.

The news has developed with reports lionfish have made it to Florida reefs:

“It’s another huge challenge for the tropical marine ecosystem, on par with habitat degradation and overfishing,” said Dave Score, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

“Lionfish are altering the diversity of an area that has taken hundreds of thousands of years to adapt and evolve.”

If it were possible for scientists to eradicate the lionfish by fishing them out and destroying them, I’d be 100% behind it.

But not everyone is so sure that’s the right approach. Vlad, from the often provocative blog frag’d it argues scientists are both over-reacting and being unimaginative in their solutions, writing:

A modest reefer like myself could easily throw a couple of cents their way.

Could introducing Hawaii’s yellow tangs or convict tangs help with the fish numbers? What about introducing their natural predators such as eels, frogfish and scorpionfish? Could they displace the lionfish population while keeping smaller fish to reproduce?

Just ask yourself this… if this lionfish can exist in other parts of the world without ruining their ecosystems, then why can’t we emulate the same here?

I definitely agree with Vlad’s excellent point that marine biologists should explore and interact with the marine hobby more. As he says elsewhere in his post, we’ve been way ahead of the scientists in a number of areas.

I think it was reef writer Julian Sprung who once said he was discussing fragging corals with someone from academia, and the other guy said “Interesting idea, it might just work”… years after every hobbyist and their eight-year old son had been doing it!

But I’m not sure we fishkeepers are qualified to offer much input into tackling the lionfish issue in the Caribbean.

The enemy of our enemy is our friend?

Personally, I think lionfish probably do pose a serious threat, to the reef ecology as we know it.

In time something will surely emerge to keep lionfish numbers in check. The trouble is we haven’t got time if we or our grandchildren want to enjoy reefs rich in biodiversity (assuming scientists are right).

Evolution takes tens if not hundreds of of thousands of years to bring about solutions.

You already see the affects of the removal of top predators like groupers devastating Caribbean reefs, which have been utterly degraded by almost everything we can throw at them. It’s sad to look back at old pictures of Florida coral stands now long gone (naturally pollution has been at least as big an issue). I even remember seeing healthy reefs in the old TV show, Flipper.

Introducing one predator to combat another introduced predator has a very bad track record. For example, see the appalling history of the cane toad, which farmers introduced across the South Pacific to control pests, and which has gone on to destroy local fauna.

A better argument for not worrying about the lionfish is that nothing can be done about it anyway, in practical terms.

But I don’t draw much comfort from that. A marine biologist told me a while ago that within a few decades, a combination of global warming and international shipping would mean that all the coastlines of the temperate seas would feature largely the same (far less diverse) range of seaweed, crustaceans, fish and other lifeforms.

We’re leaving the world in a far worse state than we found it. :(

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

glassbox design 02.21.09 at 3:50 pm

In this instance I believe in restitutive justice, but there are a lot of deep implications… many of which conflict with the whole idea of environmentalism.

A big question to ask is, are humans part of nature or are we separate from it? Your answer to that will shape many answers in regards to our action towards an invasive species like this.

Owen James 02.23.09 at 10:50 am

I think we have to accept that with six billion of us, we’ve made the world as it is and we may as well carry on trying to shape it as best we can (imperfect – to say the least – though that process is).

I have this argument with my girlfriend all the time. She hates the focus on Panda bears, and says they should be allowed to die out as they’ve become unviable, whereas I say they’ve only become unviable because of us.

As you say, the crux of the matter. Thanks for commenting! :)

ABE 04.17.11 at 12:23 am

I find sad to think about killing any fish just because they are eating to live.. but in a case like this something has to too and it is left to us to do so. We have our hands full trying to deal with nature, global warming, people not being wise when they go snorkeling. we see more and more tourist going snorkeling on their own causing so much damage to corals reefs. We offer snorkeling tour in the island of Vieques and is sad to see how much the corals are being damage.

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