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Invasion of the Lionfish!

by Victoria Garcia

Many might see a lionfish with its long flowing fins and red and white striped coloration as a harmless fish but here in the Florida Keys we view this unique creature differently. The lionfish (Pterois volitans) is an invasive species to the North Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean, originally found in the Indo-Pacific Ocean and Red Sea reaching upwards of 20 inches and living to 15 years old.

There are many reasons that these fish are harmful to the Florida Keys Ecosystem.  Lionfish have no natural predators here in the Keys, so they are eating several of our fish populations, which are important on our reefs. They are able to expand their stomachs to several times its original size, which accommodates their voracious appetite.  Lionfish can reproduce all year around and spawn thousands of eggs, which is one of the main reasons that these fish thrive in the Keys. They are a hardy animal found in shallow water in depths beyond 200 feet, and are resilient to disease and infection. In addition, the lionfish have 18 venomous spines found on the dorsal, pelvic and anal fins that they use for protection.   If a human is stung it is rarely fatal, but if stung, place the wounded area in hot water which helps break down the venom and then decreases pain.

We may never know the exact reason how lionfish were introduced to our waters, maybe a hurricane flooding, a private collection or pet owners releasing them in to the ocean.  Either way it is clear that the lionfish population needs to be controlled. In Florida, you do not need a fishing license to fish or pole spear for lionfish and there are no size restrictions or catch limits.  Fish awareness advocates such as Guy Harvey and the FWC, host derbies and contests throughout the year where participants compete to catch the most lionfish. Restaurants also have another way of helping with the lionfish problem by putting them on the menu. “You got to eat ‘em to beat ‘em!”

This past fall we opened our lionfish exhibit at Aquarium Encounters, featuring our lionfish and aquacultured live rock teeming with many invertebrates. So make sure to visit the aquarium and check out these majestic creatures.

FREE WORKSHOP AT AQUARIUM ENCOUNTERS: Learn how to collect and handle lionfish on February 18th and April 15th from 9-11:30am. After, join REEF for a free lionfish collection dive at Dive Duck Key at 1:00 pm. For more information and to register, go to: www. Reef.org/lionfish/workshops.

Aquarium Encounters is open 365 days a year from 9am to 5pm at mile marker 53.1.  If you would like more information about exhibit sponsorship contact: info@floridakeysaquariumencounters.com.  We are located on the west side of the Vaca Cut Bridge at 11710 Overseas Highway in Marathon; phone 305.407.3262, on the Web @www.floridakeysaquariumencounters.com