Lionfish in Cuba
Lionfish are invading Cuba’s coral reefs! Lionfish are common in the Indo-Pacific Oceans but have not been part of the ecosystem of the Atlantic Ocean. These nice looking predators have venomous dorsal spines they use for defense. They are not aggressive to humans and can be approached closely. However, watch out not to get stung since this is very painful!
When I was diving on several locations in Cuba (Havana, Maria La Gorda, Bay of Pigs) in February/March 2009 I did not see one Lionfish during 24 dives, and nobody was talking about it. When I returned a couple of months later (August/September), Lionfish in Cuba was the topic and I have seen them in many dives in Havana and Maria La Gorda. It is amazing and scary how fast they spread. One species we captured and brought to the Havana Aquarium for genetic analysis. Perhaps one can learn how they are able to spread so fast, but there is probably no way to get rid of them in the Caribbean and Western Atlantic. The pictures of Lionfish below were taken in Havana (left) and Maria La Gorda (right).
How did the Lionfish get there? Most probably a small number Lionfish were released from an aquarium in Florida by a Hurricane in 1992. There is some genetic evidence that the Lionfish in this area are all originating from very few species. Eggs and larvae were transported by the Gulf Stream, and the Lionfish started to appear at the Atlantic coast of the United States up to North Carolina, Bermuda, and the Bahamas. Now they are sighted basically everywhere in the Western Atlantic and Caribbean Sea, as long as the water temperatures allow.
So, what is the problem, other that Lionfish just don’t belong there? Lionfish are aggressive predators that don’t have many natural enemies in their natural habitat and even fewer (if any) in the Caribbean Sea. There are some sharks and groupers that might feed on Lionfish, but this obviously did not prevent their explosive spreading. It is not clear if and how Lionfish are disturbing the ecosystem, but since they are feeding on large numbers of small fish their presence might dramatically influence the fragile ecosystem.
Can we do anything about it? Local divers in Havana are trying to kill Lionfish, but this is not even a cosmetic solution considering 3700 km coastline of Cuba alone. We have to face that this is the largest invasion of an alien species in an ocean ever observed, and that the Lionfish are going to stay there.
Further reading: NOAA (http://oceanservice.noaa.gov)