Lad Akins, an expert from the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), said V. I. residents should be concerned about the invasion because it will affect everyone who lives, works or just visits the Virgin Islands.
“We don't have anything against this fish,” Akins said. “It just doesn't belong here.”
The lionfish is native to the Indo-Pacific ocean region and does not cause problems there.
“Something over there keeps the lionfish in check,” but that something seems to be absent in the Caribbean, Akins told about two dozen residents gathered Sunday night at the University of the Virgin Islands.
He used the word “scary” several times when he discussed the lionfish's voracious appetite and its rapid population growth. His presentation included dramatic slides about the rapid spread of the lionfish through the Caribbean Sea after it was first spotted off the coast of South Florida in 1994. In such places as the Bahamas, there are now high densities of lionfish.
“St. Croix appears to be like other areas we have seen,” Akins said. “First there are isolated sightings, then they become more common, and then they become daily.”
Nine lionfish have been collected on St. Croix since they were first sighted last year, said William Coles of the the V.I. Division of Fish and Wildlife. Two sightings have been recorded on St. Thomas, but those sightings were not confirmed, he said.
There are different possible explanations about how the lionfish were introduced into the Caribbean, Akins said. But REEF's research indicates that it was probably aquarium fish released in the Florida area producing eggs that floated on currents to other parts of the Caribbean Sea. He showed slides illustrating the currents, and then another showing the progression of the fish through the region, and they matched pretty closely.
The eggs themselves are one of the scary elements of the invasion. A mature female lionfish can lay 30,000 eggs into the ocean in a cycle, and the cycle can be repeated every four days, said Stephanie Green, a researcher for REEF, which is headquartered in Key Largo, Fla.
Researchers believe the eggs floating on the surface might be what keeps the lionfish in check in its native region, where there may be predators that feed on the eggs. There appears to be no predators for the eggs or the lionfish in the Caribbean.
One reason that even reef sharks refuse to eat them is their 13 poisonous dorsal spines. If that wasn’t bad enough, the fish has two more spines on its stomach and three in its anal area.
Besides those poisonous spines, the meat of the fish can be quite tasty. According to Akins, several restaurants in the Caribbean have lionfish on the menu. That might even he part of the solution, he said.
“We brought the lionfish here,” Akins said. “We are probably going to have to be the controlling agent here.”
But the immediate concern is not humans’ appetite, but the lionfish's appetite.
“We know they eat a lot and they eat often,” Green said.
The presentation showed a dissected lionfish and 22 grunts that it had in its stomach. A 16-inch lionfish was found to have a nine-inch reef fish in its stomach. Lionfish, which can live for decades, grow to about 18 inches. The fish have distinctive dark or maroon and white vertical stripes and fanlike pectoral fins. They feed in the early morning and late evening, and can be aggressive to divers.
Anyone seeing one in the Virgin Islands is requested to call Fish and Wildlife at 643-0800. The fish generally stay in one territory, so they can be captured and removed. The V.I. Wildlife strategy at this point is early detection and removal.
“Lionfish, first reported in the Caribbean only five years ago, are now one of the most abundant fish on many coral reefs in the region,” said the news release announcing the weekend discussions. “Lionfish are a major threat to marine resources across the Caribbean, rapidly preying on native fishes and crustaceans that are vital to fishing and tourism industries.”
The first two seminars were at the National Park Service in Christiansted and all were free and open to the public. Sunday's audience included students, science teachers and divers.