At the Aquarium, we have two new lionfish on display in the Pacific Coral Reef exhibit. Pterois radiata, the clearfin lionfish and Pterois antennata, the spotfin lionfish.
Did you know that some lionfish are considered to be an invasive animal? Decades ago these fish escaped, due to tropical storm damage or were released several times from the pet/aquarium trade. Pterois volitans, the large lionfish that we have had on exhibit for years, is one of two almost identical species (the other is Pterois miles) that are out-competing and feasting on native fish in Southeast coastal US waters and the Caribbean (the large lionfish is native only to the Western Pacific Ocean and our two new lionfish are juveniles and are not considered invasive.).
Its venomous spines make most other predators avoid it and it's voracious appetite, prolific breeding and territorial nature make it a serious threat to coastal ecosystems and economies. Scientists fear it may wipe out the stocks of small fish in an already stressed ecosystem. In 2006 NOAA found lionfish to be the second most common species in coastal waters from Florida to North Carolina. A multimillion dollar fishing industry and local biodiversity are at risk, so NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Invasive Species Council and the State Department are watching its movement.
NOAA scientists have also started the “Eat Lionfish Campaign”, which may help to reduce the population of this voracious predator. Others are taking more direct action, including conservationists at the Roatan Marine Park, a grassroots community organization in Honduras. Divers there have been training gray reef sharks to eat them. They began with a half-dead lionfish, speared earlier by a diver, releasing it into the midst of a swirling mass of the sharks. Sensing the lionfish's final twitches, the sharks descend on the weakened prey. Within a few weeks, the sharks were attacking and eating lionfish on their own, with apparently no ill effects from the spines or venom.