Saturday, September 18, 2010

When Aquarium Fish Go Awry

With their feathered fins and outrageous colors and patterns, lionfish, native to the Indian Pacific ocean region, are a favorite of many aquarium owners. They are so popular that seemingly innocent aquarists have released some into waters off the coast of Florida and in the Caribbean and Bahamas. After all, if they're amazing to look at in an aquarium, imagine what they would look like to a snorkeler or diver in coral blue waters.

Unfortunately, these fish come with some hefty baggage. They have no predators in their food chain, except for their two-legged  admirers. Lionfish are voracious predators and love the lip-smacking delicacies of young grouper and snapper and the invertebrates that make up the base of the food chain in coral reef ecosystems. And lionfish are highly venomous, with sharp dorsal spines to protect themselves.

How do we rid ocean environments of invasive fish species? It's not an easy task, but Florida wants this species removed from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. So they held a fish derby that attracted 27 teams comprised of a total of 100 trained divers. Their mission? Dive in the sanctuary and carefully capture lionfish for the chance to win montetary prizes.

The first of three planned Keys-based lionfish derbies attracted 27 teams that competed for cash and prizes to collect the most, largest and smallest lionfish. The day ended with a grand tally of 534 lionfish that are no longer bullying their way around the sanctuary. The derby was so successful that two more are planned.

And how did they celebrate their success? Lionfish are considered a delicacy because of their flesh, a dense white meat. Divers gathered at a local restaurant to enjoy their bounty and plan for the next event.

Can these derbies result in total eradication of lionfish in ocean ecosystems? Not likely. A total of 27% of all mature lionfish would have to be removed annually just to make a dent in reducing population numbers. But the derbies go a long way toward highlighting the havoc that aquarium species wreak when released into the wild.
All of us can learn from what is happening with aquarium species in other parts of our country and the world. Use aquarium species responsibly and protect Oregon's native fish and wildlife.

Lisa DeBruyckere, Oregon Invasive Species Council Coordinator

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