Nassau Grouper can help control lionfish poulation - study shows

The Nassau Grouper may be able to limit the invasion of lionfish on Caribbean coral reefs, a study published this week in the online journal PLoS One, suggests.

Lionfish, which are not found naturally in the Caribbean, are believed to have been released from aquariums in the United States. They eventually made their way to the Bahamas in 2004. Lionfish numbers have increased dramatically in the last few years, and they have now invaded the entire Caribbean.

Although lionfish are among the most beautiful fish in the sea, they are voracious predators of small fish and conservationists are concerned about their impact on native fish population.

A research team from the University of Queensland (Australia) and American Museum of Natural History (New York) studied the invasion of lionfish in a remote stretch of coral reef in the Bahamas.

The report’s lead author, Professor Peter Mumby, reports:

“In 2006 we did not encounter any lionfish, but by 2010 they were at all of our 12 study sites. However, the number of lionfish was ten times lower in reefs with lots of large groupers”.

The team surveyed reefs inside and outside the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, which is one of the best marine reserves in the Caribbean, having been established in 1959.

Prof. Mumby continues, “With long-term protection from fishing, grouper numbers are among the highest in the Caribbean and we believe that groupers are eating enough lionfish to limit their invasion on these reefs”.

This is positive news for conservation efforts but Prof. Mumby adds a cautionary note. “Years of over-fishing means that densities of large grouper, like the Nassau grouper, are low throughout most of the Caribbean. If we want grouper to help us control the lionfish invasion we’ll have to develop a taste for lionfish instead of grouper and drastically reduce the fishing of this species.”

Lionfish have high venomous spines to protect them from predators, and the lionfish has few known predators. Researchers have however, found the remains of lionfish in the belly of large groupers and now feel confident that the Nassau Grouper can help to control the lionfish population.

In Belize people have already developed a taste for lionfish, where it is served as a delicacy in some restaurants.

There are also regular competitions and prizes for fishermen who can snare the most lionfish.

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