January 26, 2014

Lionfish in the Chesapeake Bay?

Not yet! Or at least no one has reported them. But the invasive lionfish, native to the Pacific, may arrive if efforts to control them do not occur. They have been seen off North Carolina shores since 2000 and they reproduce quickly. Juvenile lionfish have been spotted off the coast of Rhode Island in recent summer months after hitching a ride there in warm Gulf Stream waters. They may have heard that 'Virginia is for lovers' so get ready for an invasion if the Chesapeake warms up. This winter's cold weather may have kept them at bay (pun intended) for a few years. Jellyfish are bad enough.

The good news is that, in areas where scuba divers hunt them with spearguns and nets, the lionfish population has decreased to a threshold where native fish can numbers can recover. Lionfish cannot be completely eradicated, but reducing them to 75-95 percent of their numbers in test areas is doing the trick. In the Turks and Caicos, annual lionfishing tournaments have been popular.

Some propose eating them as well. I had the opportunity to try them on a small island off Belize last summer and they were quite delicious when fried by the scientists living there as part of an Eco-project. We even dined on barracuda that night.

The venomous spines of this beautiful fish are dangerous to humans too. The advice is to immediately remove them and apply a hot pack if you brush against a lionfish. Then seek medical help.

NOAA has been studying lionfish for many years, after they appeared in Florida waters in the late '80s, most likely from tropical pet fish tanks. So we already know that lionfish reach sexual maturity within two years and spawn several times a year, producing up to 30,000 buoyant eggs each time. Currents carry them easily to warm waters. Lionfish have no natural predators in the Atlantic and they eat anything smaller than them. And LOTS of them. These fish are not like most fish that stop eating when they are full. They gorge on shrimp, baby crabs and fish and can withstand starvation for long periods.

A recent generous donation will allow the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Maryland to include a lionfish aquarium in their Estuarium renovation. So plan a day trip there next spring to get a close look at lionfish as well as the invasive snake fish.