Invasive Lionfish Face Down Sharks, New Study

Invasive lionfish from the Indo-Pacific region have now exploded in the Caribbean, with the predatory fish launching an all-out assault on the native fish of the region. A study published Thursday said that sharks and other large predators didn’t control lionfish — and that’s really bad news coming on top of an earlier study that said lionfish could reduce native fish populations by as much as 65 percent.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill published their frightening findings in open access science journal PLOS One. The team surveyed 71 Caribbean reefs over three years in the course of the study to see if competition from native predators could reduce or influence the growing numbers of invasive lionfish impacting the region.

In particular, they wanted to find out if native sharks or groupers could control the swelling populations of the lionfish.

This beautiful fish is covered with spines that carry a poisonous neurotoxin. It’s quite likely that this natural protection discourages the sharks and other large predators from interfering with them.

In any event, the study concluded that natural predators had no effect on the spread of lionfish.

John Bruno, lead investigator of the study, summed up the grim findings in a statement: “Lionfish are here to stay, and it appears that the only way to control them is by fishing them.”

The team still supports the protection of sharks and the restoration of large predators to the Caribbean — but not because they think these animals can help in the fight against invasive lionfish. They now support active human management, including hunting and fishing of the lionfish, to control their population.

This video from summer 2012 is an indepth report on the fight against invasive lionfish in Bonaire, Dutch Antilles:

Here is a shorter but older video from the BBC by Phillipe Cousteau Jr. and his team about the crisis of invasive lionfish in the Atlantic Ocean, not just in the Caribbean but as far north as New York. It’s worth watching because you can see a lionfish actually catch and eat its hapless prey:

You can hear one of the divers make the chilling statement: “They’re everywhere.”

To the Caribbean coral reefs, the invasive lionfish is far more dangerous than any lion.

[lionfish photo by Elaine Radford]