TIDE's Lionfish research aims to understand Lionfish invasion behaviour within Port Honduras Marine Reserve (PHMR) whilst also instigating effective control methods that can be carried out by the local community.
Lionfish (Pterois volitans) are an invasive species that have severely affected native fish populations in the Caribbean. Lionfish originate from the Indo-pacific oceans and the Red sea, but have swept through Atlantic and Caribbean waters, from Florida to Brazil, during the past 15 years. As an invasive species, lionfish have no natural predators in the Caribbean and their prey does not fear them. This means they feed freely on juvenile native fish species and crustaceans and rapidly reduce their populations. They are thought to use unusual hunting behaviours such as steering their prey in groups to trap them. One estimate shows a single Lionfish may decrease the number of juvenile native fish in an area by approximately 79% in just 5 weeks! Therefore, lionfish rapidly affect commercial fish stocks by reducing prey species of larger fish.
The Lionfish invasion is thought to have begun with the release of a few individuals from either domestic or public aquariums during a hurricane. Their population has grown rapidly as they outbreed their native competitors by producing 2 million eggs each per year and the majority of the population resides below maximum diver depth limits; this makes lionfish a very hard species to control! Lionfish live for 15 years and females reach maturity at one year old (at approximately 7-8 inches or 17.8-20.3cm). Their cryptic colouration also makes them difficult to see in the water.
Lionfish were first discovered in Belize in 2008 and by 2011 they were known to have reached PHMR, making it one of the last protected areas in Belize known to have been affected. In response, TIDE began carrying out a Lionfish Research Project in PHMR using dive surveys and fishermen surveys to better understand the behaviour and impact of the invasive fish. The project is ongoing and monitors the population density, preferred habitat type, size, frequency distribution, feeding behaviour through gut content analysis, and gender ratio of lionfish in PHMR. The data has helped us to understand more about lionfish, such as which habitat, diet and depth they prefer and this has helped us instigate control methods.
Results have found that there is not currently a large population of lionfish in PHMR. But those that are present are found most frequently in groups on rocky outcrops in the outer range of the reserve. Gut content analysis revealed Lionfish are eating predominantly small fish but are now moving on to shrimp as the small fish population decreases. Therefore, if left unchecked, Lionfish could cause the collapse of native fish stocks which would negatively affect livelihoods of fishermen that depend on them.
Consequently, TIDE and other organisations are working to reduce the population of Lionfish in Belize. Reef CI have now speared a total of 5893 Lionfish around Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve and TIDE staff and volunteers are spearing lionfish whenever they are in the water. We are also encouraging the local community to buy and sell Lionfish as they are venomous not poisonous and they are safe to eat and handle once their 18 venomous spines have been removed. TIDE has been running a lionfish taster stalls at public events in Punta Gorda (such as TIDE Fish Fest) to encourage people to buy, cook and prepare the fish for themselves and order Lionfish from restaurants. We also encourage people to buy beautiful Lionfish jewellery made by local Belizean ladies. For more information about Lionfish conservation follow the link to the website: http://reefci.com/.
TIDE hopes that by fishing and eating Lionfish we can manage their numbers and PHMR can continue to rebuild fish stocks in the reserve. This will allow activities such as diving, fishing and tourism, to continue in and around PHMR. We need your help in accomplishing this goal. Please read this article then share the message.