By RICK GOINES
FOR THE DAILY SOUTHERNER
Are lionfish quickly becoming a nuisance and threatening our native North Carolina reef fish populations? Those experts in the marine sciences give an emphatic yes. The nagging question begging an answer is what to do about it.
Known in the scientific community as Pterois volitans, lionfish are typically one-pound, foot-long, reef bottom feeders with venomous spines that have no natural predators, and are starting to overpopulate, damaging the ecological balance of the reefs off our North Carolina coast.
Could this be an ecological disaster that will resonate in due time in the commercial and sport fishing community? Absolutely. Experts theorize lionfish will continue to multiply greatly and impact reef life negatively.
Lionfish reach sexual maturity very quickly. A single female spawns 2 million eggs a year. As fish go, they have a long life-span, exceeding several decades.
Native to tropical Pacific and Indian oceans, the lionfish problems and concerns are relatively new to this area, and have been only recently on North Carolina marine scientists’ agendas and watch lists.
For many, introduction to lionfish has been through commercial and home aquariums. These candy-striped fish with venomous spines are interesting to observe in an aquarium atmosphere.
Known to be aggressive with voracious appetites, they feed in the wild on juvenile lobsters, snapper, grouper, and other bottom reef fish fingerlings and aquatic nurseries, consuming 10 times as much as a same size fish. Some 70 different species of fish and aquatic growth are thought to be impacted. Most lionfish prey are commercially, recreationally, and ecologically important to NC coastal fisheries.
With no natural predators and a population that is quickly escalating out of control, some areas have put a bounty on lionfish. Spear fishermen find them to be a plentiful, stationary target around reefs, wrecks, and structure. They are rarely caught on hook and line, and are difficult and inefficient to harvest commercially. Spear fishing appears to be the most effective method to catch them.
A diving club held a lionfish spear fishing tournament off Morehead City earlier this summer with cash prizes for lionfish, then used the resulting catch to introduce the unique tasting, flaky white meat to diners. Of course, handling lionfish in and out of the water should be done with protective gloves due to those prickly venomous spines. Much of the toxicity dissipates at their death, and when cleaned, detoxified, and prepared properly, lionfish enjoy an excellent table fare reputation and are thought to be a special delicacy.
The web site www.reef.org seeks to conserve marine ecosystems by educating and informing marine enthusiasts and they, tongue-in-cheek, suggest the solution to the dilemma is to, “Eat ‘em to beat ‘em.” Not so ironically, that was the name given to the recent lionfish tournament in Carteret County.
In summary, lionfish are here to stay. They are a real problem and a definite threat to the ecological balance of our coastal NC reefs and related fisheries. What can we do? Encourage legislators and marine science officials to help control and keep lionfish in check.
Perhaps something as small as purchasing a lionfish fillet at the fish market or restaurant would drive demand and reduce supply. All of us need to do our part to control the “roar” in this lionfish dilemma.