With their spikey fins, imposing eyes and venomous spines, lionfish don’t exactly look like good eating. And that’s part of the reason this Indo-Pacific species is wreaking havoc on ecosystems in other parts of the world.
This new addition to Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre (see them in our Tropics display) are becoming a familiar sight in the waters around the Caribbean and South America, where the invasive species lacks natural predators and is gobbling up local fish.
In less than 30 years, lionfish have dramatically expanded their distribution range. They’re now found in waters off the southern United States down to the coast of Brazil, thanks, we think, to the commercial aquarium trade. These frilly fish, notable for their bright red stripes, are beautiful to behold and popular with fish aficionados for home aquariums. But those who tire of caring for these voracious eaters have been releasing them into the Atlantic Ocean for up to 25 years, according to some estimates.
As marine invaders, these gluttonous fish feed on just about anything small enough to fit into their mouths — including crustaceans and juvenile populations of many commercially important species such as snapper and grouper. (In fact, lionfish are such big eaters they are one of the few fish documented to battle obesity.) Their presence, and their insatiable appetites, affect reef structures and can decimate populations of local species.
It seems not much in the waters where they wind up is willing to take a chance on biting into one of these creatures. Except maybe us. Here’s one example where humans’ predilection for seafood could help the ecosystems where lionfish have set up shop.
Conservation efforts in some areas where these fish have been found centre on adding these invaders to the menu in local restaurants. Prepared correctly, their venomous spines – which aren’t fatal to humans – are removed and the remaining morsel has a delicate flavour that has been compared to sea bass.
And humans aren’t the only ones conservationists are hoping will develop a taste for lionfish flesh. Efforts are also underway in some places to train larger fish to get over their fear of the intimidating-looking interlopers and hunt them on their own.
Interested in getting a glimpse of these gluttons? Swing by our Tropics exhibit on your next trip to Vancouver Aquarium.