While the lionfish invasion threatens to scour the local waters of all life, it also poses the danger of economic devastation to the territory, a potential $300-million to $500-million hit that could come as early as a few years from now, a gathering at the University of the Virgin Islands was told Thursday.
Joseph A. Gulli, president of the Caribbean Oceanic Restoration and Education Foundation, told the UVI audience that by the time the problem becomes obvious it will be too late.
Gulli addressed a group of more than 50 people in the Evans Hall lecture room, with an additionl group watching electronically from the St. Thomas UVI campus.
The lionfish is "incredibly beautiful," Gulli conceded, with its black and white stripes and its lacy fins fanning out, encircled by its spines.
"When you see it underwater, it’s breathtaking."
But it’s also inexorable, spreading with alarming speed from Florida, where it was first introduced, into the Atlantic in a little less than 20 years. It is omni-carnivorous, Gulli said, not limiting itself to a particular species, but eating "anything it can get in its mouth." Though specimens have been known to go as long as six months without eating, once it finds a source of food it never stops eating.
And it reproduces prodigously, according to Gulli. A female can lay up to 30,000 eggs at a time, every four days, all year long.
"Basically, it’s an eating and breeding machine," he said.
Its effect on local wildlife has been reported often since the predator first showed up in territorial waters two years ago. In its first year, it will eat as much as 85 percent of the hatchlings of native fish. Those fish are supposed to be replacing the fish that are lost through natural predation and fishing. When the stock of fish on the reef is depleted in five years, there will be nothing coming up to take its place.
Except more lionfish. And the fishing industry, already tottering from declining catches, could crumble. Gulli said some 3,000 people in the territory fish on a daily basis.
And when the reefs have been scoured clean of forest fish, which eat the algae that would otherwise choke the coral reefs, the coral dies.
Without the coral reefs and the multi-colored fish that draw visitors from around the world, the tourism and diving industries could suffer. And without them, the hotel and restaurant industries would be in jeopardy. Making it worse is the fact that the lionfish has been found as deep as 1,000 feet and in as little as six inches of water. Trips to the beach, especially with small children, suddenly become less restful and fun, with the chance of running across one of these fish with its needle-like spines and venom.
"The lionfish are going to take all of this away," Gulli said.
Gulli and the group CORE did not wait around for government grants to take action. There wasn’t time for that.
"This crisis is time sensitive," he said.
CORE’s program is two pronged, Gulli said.
1 – Find lionfish and get them out of the water. Three to ten divers from CORE are in the water every day looking for the fish, he said, and have taken more than 800 out of the water so far. Eventually, when funding is available, Gulli would like to see a lionfish response vehicle manned fulltime by as many as six divers who would patrol constantly throughout the territory.
2 – Educate the public to the threat. To that end CORE has developed signs, fliers, identification cards and more material. They work in coordination with other islands so that throughout the Caribbean the message is the same.
There is no talk about actually eliminating the lionfish from local waters. As much as people would like it, it’s simply not realistic, he said.
At the same time, keeping the numbers down is vital. Gulli pointed out that the Virgin Islands are not yet "completely overrun" with fish. Some areas are badly hit, he said, particularly the west side of St. Croix, but others have seen much less incursion.
And he said in areas where divers have gone in again and again, the fish have been held in check.
He added that casual swimmers and waders who run across the fish should not attempt to grab or remove them if they don’t know what they’re doing. The lionfish have dangerous spines all around its body. "You will get stung." Those spines transmit a neurotoxin that can cause a lot of pain. A person who has been been stung can find relief by applying warm (not scaldingly hot, but warm) water to the affected area. The pain will subside in a hour, hour and a half, Gulli said.
Gulli added that the lionfish do learn, so a clumsy attempt to capture one teaches the predator to be wary. The more times a lionfish survives an unsuccessful attempt to catch it, the harder it becomes to catch at all, he said.
Gulli said people in those circumstances should either mark the spot or contact Fish & Wildlife or one of the addresses below and descrive the area as completely as possible.
People who want more information on CORE and the lionfish program can contact a member on their island. The addresses are:
St. Croix – firstname.lastname@example.org
St. Thomas – email@example.com
St. John – firstname.lastname@example.org