Concern is growing among some researchers and environmentalists that the lionfish in the Caribbean might make their way to the Pacific.
This is the invasive fish that herds prey with its wide fins and eat them. The species, Pterois volitans, has proliferated on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, and small commercial fishing interests hold annual contests to reduce the numbers.
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute is featuring the work of a Canadian researcher who has outlined ways in which the fish could get to the western side of the isthmus. He is Andrew Sellers, a doctoral student at McGill University who did his master’s degree on lionfish in Panama’s Caribbean, said the institute.
The lionfish has become a plague throughout the coastal Atlantic and Caribbean. A number of countries, including Costa Rica, have launched research efforts and attempts to reduce the number of lionfish.
Several U.S. universities have active lionfish research to find out how the fish spread so quickly.
Lionfish, native to the tropical Pacific and Indian Oceans, have dramatic coloring and large, spiny fins, Oregon State University noted in a 2010 news story. It’s believed they were first introduced into marine waters off Florida in the early 1990s from local aquariums or fish hobbyists. They have since spread across much of the Caribbean Sea and north along the U.S. coast as far as Rhode Island.
The Smithsonian said that growing lionfish eat the larvae of game fish such as billfish and jacks as well as the fish that remove algae from the reefs, and they also eat lobsters, octopus, sea horses and crabs, with serious consequences for coastal communities and the ecotourism business.
Sellers presented his research at a Panama City scientific workshop on lionfish this month and said that there are three ways the lionfish could reach and establish a foothold in the Pacific.
There is a lot of concern in Panamá about the environmental impact of the canal and its new, larger lane. However, Sellers was
quoted by the Smithsonian as saying that the canal route is the least probable.
He said that the canal water contains less salt than the lionfish may need.
He was more concerned that the fish would be transported from the Caribbean to the Pacific in the ballast water of ships, said the Smithsonian. There is precedence for the transport of invasive species that way.
Sellers also was quoted as expressing concern about the aquarium trade. Lionfish have become popular aquarium dwellers in Panama City, right on the Pacific coast, the Smithsonian said.
The workshop on lionfish brought experts from around the Americas together to share stories on management strategies and to discuss scientific research and economic opportunities that link to the lionfish invasion, said the Smithsonian.
A lionfish population on the Pacific coast would be bad news for the sports fishing industry because of the creature’s decimation of game fish larva.
Divers with spears appear to be the most efficient way to reduce the numbers of lionfish, but many live below comfortable diving levels. The fish are good to eat.