As you snorkel and dive the Belize Barrier Reef you will happen upon a most beautiful fish, with bright red stripes and a peacock-like fan of white fluttering fins. If you were a visitor to the MesoAmerican Reef prior to 2008 you might be wondering where these colourful fish suddenly came from as they are not native to the Caribbean or Atlantic Ocean.
Red lionfish are an invasive species, originally from the Indo-Pacific Ocean, they have flourished in the wider Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean. Lionfish are a huge problem as they prey upon reef fish which are important for a healthy marine ecosystem and for a thriving tourism industry.
The red lionfish is thought to have made its way to Belize by being released from home aquariums in Florida’s waters in the early 1980’s.
Belize, like many other countries have management strategies in place to try to control the expanding lionfish population. Lionfish spearing competitions, encouraging divers and fishermen to hunt for lionfish and encouraging the public to eat lionfish are all ways to try and manage their population.
One of the key challenges of keeping the lionfish population down is that lionfish can reproduce at an incredibly high rate. Lionfish can become reproductive in under a year (large grouper and snappers require five to seven years) and can release 50,000 eggs every 4 days! They can produce up to 2 million eggs a year. Other challenges include not having native predators in the Caribbean and Atlantic so their numbers don’t decrease naturally. They are very widespread and with sightings at close to 1000ft depth seen by remotely operated vehicles. Unfortunately lionfish seem to learn quickly to avoid areas with spearfishes, hiding under ledges and in deeper water until night where they are more actively hunting.
Here at Tobacco Caye Marine Station we educate students about lionfish and highlight how detrimental they can be to the Belize Barrier Reef. If the group is comfortable with doing so, we can take a Hawaiian sling out to our snorkel sites to spear any lionfish that we see. If we are successful in killing and catching, we take it back to the classroom for the students to have a closer look. For our lionfish project we take measurements of length, mouth gape and dissect the stomach to identify the species that it is preying upon. We also look for any egg sacks in the females.
Dissections of lionfish stomachs have shown that they are voracious consumers of juvenile snappers, grouper, damsel fish, tuna, lobster, shrimp and so many more species that many reef, coasts, communities and countries’ economies depend on. Their appetite is assisted because the lionfish can dislocate its jaw swallowing prey up to 2/3 their body size and their stomach volume can expand 30 times to accommodate meals. This being said they can survive 3 months without eating.
With 18 spines in their dorsal, pelvic and anal fins that carry a potent neuromuscular venom that causes considerable pain to humans when poked.
This project provides hands on learning for the students and gives them the opportunity to develop scientific skills such as measurement and dissection. The immersive learning experience really sticks with students and many report that it is the highlight of their time at Tobacco Caye.
We are very thankful to the students and groups that have participated in our lionfish project 2019. Tobacco Caye Marine Station is proud to release a report on lionfish findings caught this year, 28 lionfish have been caught as a result of students effort in taking part in the project. To learn more about lionfish and our 2019 findings please see our lionfish report 2019. Each year we hope to collect more data and determine population trends around Tobacco Caye and within the South Water Caye Marine Reserve.