Friday, February 6, 2009

All Because of an Aquarium

Photo via Tim Sheerman-Chase

Home aquarists don’t always realize that their hobby can have an impact on the environment. Those that do tend to think of the impact being in the countries the fish are collected in. In previous blogs, I have talked about how the collection methods of some countries have led to coral reef destruction, species imbalance, pollution of the water, and other environmental tragedies.

Here’s a “home aquarium gone wrong story” that tackles it from the other end. The fish are causing the disaster in the country they were shipped to.

Lionfish are non-native to the Atlantic; but, since 1992 they've quickly been making themselves at home. Native fish are under attack, ecosystems are fending off an aggressive alien invader and divers are hyperventilating from pain if stung.

However, it was confirmed they’ve reached the Florida Keys when a 4” long lionfish (a juvenile male) was discovered in the Keys. This confirms the expected arrival of the non-native species.

The first documented Atlantic sightings came days after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, when six lionfish were spotted in Biscayne Bay and traced to a private aquarium swept away from a Miami waterfront home. Now, they've spread and are becoming a real issue.

It is believed that lionfish hitched a ride north on the Gulf Stream, up the East Coast, as far as Rhode Island. Other currents and eddies led the lionfish to Bermuda, then to the Bahamas and farther south to the Caribbean as well as Belize. The lionfish was ''completing a loop'' by reaching the Keys, said Lad Akins, REEF's director of special projects.

Lionfish are visually stunning perpetual appetites. They a lot and they eat anything. Native fish don’t stand a chance against these aggressive non-stop eating machines. These ever-decreasing native fish play a vital role in balancing the ecosystems in the Atlantic.

''Lionfish are eating their way through the [Atlantic] reefs like a plague of locusts,'' said Mark Hixon, a coral reef ecology expert at Oregon State University. ``This may well become the most devastating marine invasion in history.''

In a 2008 University of Oregon State study, the first to quantify the severity of the situation, research teams observed one lionfish gorging on 20 small fish in less than 30 minutes.

Scientists fear the lionfish will kill off helpful species, such as algae-eating parrotfish, allowing seaweed to overtake reefs.

Researchers feel this “may well become the most devastating marine invasion in history”.

Government officials worried about safety and the impact on diving tourism (apparently, lionfish stings hurt a lot), have asked the public to report any lionfish sighting to the REEF office at 305-852-0030.

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