One of the most recognizable fish that scuba divers may encounter is the lionfish (Pterois volitans). Everything about the striped body markings with long spines of the lionfish says “Do not touch.” Lionfish have venomous spines that it uses to defend itself if pursued. These spines can be very painful and potentially fatal to larger creatures.
There are about 8 different species of lionfish that are found in the Pacific Ocean. Lionfish live on tropical reefs and rocky crevices. The lionfish is a predatory fish hunting small fish, snapper, grouper, shrimp, and crabs. Eels, frogfish, and scorpion fish are typical predators of the lionfish. Due to its large size (12-14 inches/30 – 35centimeters) and its intimidating appearance, lionfish are prey to few predators. The main predators of the lionfish are large fish, eels and humans that catch the lionfish to put into a tank. Lionfish can live to about 16 years in the wild and often live longer in captivity. Lionfish are also known as the turkeyfish, tigerfish, dragonfish, scorpionfish, and butterfly cod.
Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific but have become well established along the southeast coast of the United States, the Caribbean, and in parts of the Gulf of Mexico. How did the fish get to the Atlantic? The exact cause is unknown. Some experts speculate that unwanted lionfish from home aquariums have been dumped into the Atlantic Ocean for up to 25 years. Another theory states that tornadoes in Florida shattered aquariums and released lionfish into the Atlantic. Since lionfish are not native to Atlantic waters, they have very few predators. Today lionfish appear around the lower coast of Florida all the way up to Long Island, New York. Scuba diving scientists capture lionfish and trace their DNA. So far, the fish trace back to an original six or seven lionfish species from the Indo-Pacific Ocean, their native home.
Scientists are actively studying these fish to understand the potential threat that lionfish pose to other reef and commercial fish species. Learning more about the habits and preferences of lionfish in non-native waters helps experts determine where to look for these invasive fish. NOAA researchers conclude that invasive lionfish populations will continue to grow and cannot be eliminated using conventional methods. Marine invaders are nearly impossible to eradicate once established. How lionfish will affect native fish populations and commercial fishing industries is undetermined. It is known that non-native species can dramatically affect native ecosystems and local fishing economies. Experts are carefully studying these invaders to understand their potential threat to Atlantic Ocean ecosystems.
The lionfish is a solitary animal that only comes together to mate. A reef’s lionfish group typically contains one male lionfish and several female lionfish for mating. The male lionfish is highly territorial and protects the area in which he and his females live. The female lionfish releases between 2,000 and 15,000 eggs into the water where they are fertilized by the male lionfish. The lionfish pair then quickly hide so their eggs can float into the ocean before predators eat the eggs. The lionfish eggs hatch in just two days, and the tiny lionfish fry remain near the surface of the water until they are about an inch long. Then they swim down into the ocean to join the reef community.
Stings from lionfish are serious. Remove any broken spines, if possible, and soak the affected area in non-scalding hot water (100-110 degrees F or 38-43 degrees C) for 15-20 minutes. Lionfish venom contains proteins that are denatured by heat, which prevents them from spreading in the bloodstream. If hot water is not available, aspirin, or aspirin with codeine can be taken. (Do not use hot water and aspirin together.) Because possible adverse reactions or secondary infections can occur from lionfish stings, a medical professional should be seen as soon as possible.