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Where When How Summer 2017 : Page 90

Be Careful Out There Except in places where fishing is prohibited, lionfish are unregu-lated, so they can and should be removed whenever possible. But dealing with a fish that has the potential to deliver a very serious, though not fatal, injection of venom is not something to take lightly. Pole spears can be very effective on adult lionfish. Hand nets are best for smaller specimens, but learning exactly how to net and han-dle the fish afterward requires some training and a few specialized equipment items, like puncture-proof gloves. (Most divers are stung when handling the fish after it’s netted or speared.) It’s also impor-tant to get the collected specimens into the hands of researchers so your efforts do more than just eliminate a fish from the population. You can learn more about these and other issues, as well as how you can contribute to fighting the invasion in other ways, by logging on to REEF’s Lionfish Research Program website at www.reef.org/pro-grams/exotic/lionfish. Reasons for their stellar success have yet to be confirmed but there are a num-ber of theories, one or all of which may provide an answer. The first involves the fish’s omnivorous appetite and hunting strategy. As confirmed by stomach con-tent analysis, lionfish eat just about any-thing that occurs in their habitat — up to half the size of their own body — and that includes both fish and invertebrates. Since our first article appeared, there has been some serious scientific research going on regarding the eating habits of li-onfish. While they eat virtually any critter that will fit into their mouths, including sea urchins, brittle stars, crabs, shrimp and a variety of other mollusks, lionfish are pri-mary fish eaters. In fact, what Oregon State scientist Mark Albin and his adviser and esteemed reef fish ecologist, Dr. Mark Hixon, have found can only be described as alarming. Working at the Caribbean Ma-rine Research Center in the Bahamian Exu-mas, the team has shown that these voracious piscivores can eliminate 80 per-cent of the juvenile fish population on a reef in as little as five weeks. In turn, they not only eliminate the next generation of fish, but also take away the food source from other important commercial species such as adult grouper and snapper. (Re-search has yet to find a Caribbean fish, in-cluding sharks, that will eat a live lionfish, though many species will consume them once they’re dead.) Lionfish also eat the ecologically important algae eaters of the reef like parrotfishes, damselfishes and surgeonfishes. Aside from what they eat, the way they catch their prey is quite unique for a reef fish in the Atlantic. Lionfish, like many other reef residents such as grouper, are described as ambush predators because of their lie-in-wait hunting technique. But that, in and of itself, is nothing new, as many predatory reef fish in the Caribbean use this same strategy. So the thousands of other fish swimming around the reef trying to avoid becoming lunch are used to it. What is novel about lionfish is their use of those signature-long, brightly col-ored fins to maneuver their targets into striking range. Of course, prey in lionfish’s native range has coevolved to recognize this, but not their prey here in the Atlantic. Like hunting deer at night with spotlights, Caribbean reef fish have no experience with this fin strategy and become easy 90 • • • • • SUMMER 2017 “Where When How -Turks & Caicos Islands”

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