Giant lionfish have been found in the Atlantic Ocean at previously unsuspected depths. Oregon State University released a statement last week describing the troubling results of what they called the first expedition to use a deep-diving submersible to seek out the predatory invasive lionfish that are devouring the native fish populations in the Caribbean and the Atlantic.
Several universities in addition to OSU participated in the dives, which used a five person submersible able to go to depths of 300 feet off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The site they studied included the Bill Boyd cargo vessel which was sunk in 1986 to create an artificial reef.
A number of programs were instituted in the 1980s and later to provide defunct ships or rigs to create new reefs for ocean wildlife. The artificial reefs have been successful — but now the invasive lionfish have found them too.
The OSU team said one of their previous studies showed that invasive lionfish from the Indo-Pacific could destroy up to 80 percent of native fish populations in the Atlantic. Furthermore, bigger fish eat even more and reproduce more.
So the team was disturbed to discover that the lionfish at depths of 300 feet around the Big Boyd were growing to the unusually large size of as much as 16 inches.
The giant lionfish are nothing to joke around with. The beautiful spines contain a neurotoxin which means that potential predators and prey alike are afraid to even touch them, much less consume them or fight them.
The OSU statement said bluntly that lionfish fear almost nothing.
Stephanie Green, one of the scientists who also performed some of the dives, said, “A lionfish will eat almost any fish smaller than it is. Regarding the large fish we observed in the submersible dives, a real concern is that they could migrate to shallower depths as well and eat many of the fish there.”
A different study of invasive lionfish in the Caribbean released last week found that their growing populations were completely unaffected by the restoration of a healthy predator population that included much bigger sharks and groupers.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill team had hoped to show that healthy shark populations could provide competition for the lionfish and help control their swelling numbers — so their findings were a disappointment to people seeking a way to tackle the lionfish problem.
I have a lot more information about that invasive lionfish study right here.
It may be that the only way to control invasive giant lionfish is for humans to hunt or trap them.
[lionfish photo by Elaine Radford]