Aliens among us: tackling invasive species

  • The invasive lionfish has been damaging our reefs since it was first spotted in 2000.

    The invasive lionfish has been damaging our reefs since it was first spotted in 2000.

Kiskadee, Brazil Pepper and poisonous fish are not the first thing that comes to mind when someone says the word “alien,” but that’s what they are: alien species. More commonly referred to as invasive or non-native species, there’s more potential danger from these invading organisms than there is from little green men in UFOs.

Technically speaking, invasive species are plants and animals that have been moved from their original habitat into a new environment, usually due to human involvement. These ecological immigrants have few to no natural predators in their new homes and can decimate an ecosystem within a few short years of arrival.

Even as an Island nation, Bermuda is not immune to these pests. In fact, according to the Department of Conservation Services, Bermuda is home to 23 of the World Conservation Union’s 100 worst invasive species, including starlings, the argentine ant and the Red-eared slider (a freshwater turtle native to the Mississippi River Basin in the United States).

Due to the import of fruits and vegetables, island nations like Bermuda are actually more at risk for the introduction of imported insects than many other places in the world. However, the invasive species that is getting the most attention won’t be found on land or buzzing around the sky.

The lionfish (Pterois) has been causing damage to reef populations in Bermuda for the last decade since it was first sighted in 2000. Normally from the Indo-Pacific region, the lionfish has started spreading in warm Atlantic waters.

Now seen everywhere from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina to the Caribbean, these poisonous fish are thought to have been introduced in the waters around Florida in the early 1990s by hurricanes and the release of aquarium fish. It is thought that during 1992’s Hurricane Andrew six red lionfish (P. volitans) were accidentally released from an aquarium into Florida’s Biscayne Bay. The main populations of red lionfish currently populating the Atlantic are thought to be descendants of these original six.

Beautiful but dangerous, these venomous fish have no natural predators in Bermuda’s reefs and, unchecked, their numbers continue to grow exponentially.

Corals are a nursery-ground for marine life and by setting up shop in these unique ecosystems, the lionfish endanger the health of the reef. Plus, these invasive predators threaten biodiversity by feeding on important keystone species like parrotfish and wrasses. The lionfish affect not only reef diversity, but the fisheries industry by feasting on commercially important species such as groupers, snappers and lobsters. Lionfish are voracious feeders, and their stomach can expand up to thirty times its normal size when consuming a big meal.

What do we do about these dangerous, and hungry, invaders? Major environmental organisations such as the Nature Conservancy and the US Fish and Wildlife Service think the solution is simple: eat them before they out-eat us. Although their spines are poisonous, once removed, lionfish are tasty. They could become a commercial alternative to many stressed species, including Bermuda’s rockfish.

Locally, organisations are raising awareness about the lionfish problem and the proposed tasty solution. In fact, the slogan for the second annual Groundswell Lionfish Tournament at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS) is “Eat ‘Em to Beat ‘Em.” On August 7, after the 3pm weigh-in, lionfish will be cooked and prepared. People who don’t want to participate in the fishing, but want to learn more about the lionfish problem (and maybe get a taste of one, too), are welcome at BIOS anytime after 2.30pm.

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Published Aug 4, 2011 at 12:00 pm (Updated Aug 4, 2011 at 12:06 pm)

Aliens among us: tackling invasive species

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