We spot one resting on a large coral head. It’s a fish with beautiful feathery fins, maroon and white bands and painfully venomous spines. It is a lionfish, an invasive species that is spreading south from Florida.
I traveled to Bocas del Toro, Panama with my Fieldwork in Coastal Management class to study the impacts of invasive lionfish. Bocas is a small little town on the Caribbean coast of Panama, with a wonderful mix of rainforests and coral reefs. Along with my colleague Zach Lipshultz, I surveyed the reefs for lionfish, assessed the biodiversity of the reef in areas with and without lionfish, and studied the stomach contents to determine their diet.
Lionfish are not naturally found in these waters and are becoming a major problem because they do not have any predators. They reproduce and spread rapidly, prey on native fishes and are competing with them for food. I am studying lionfish in Panama to determine if they will decrease the diversity of other fish on the coral reefs.
Zach and I spotted a total of 34 lionfish during our scuba surveys. Our study reveals that the lionfish in Bocas del Toro are reaching greater sizes than has been recorded in the area previously. The largest one caught in a November 2010 derby in was 29.5 cm, and our largest was 31 cm.
But to know what the lionfish are eating, we had to get down and dirty and open up each of the their stomachs. Zach, wearing protective gloves, carefully cut the venomous spines from the fish. I then held it and cut its belly open, being careful not to pierce any of the internal organs. Next, I located its stomach and cut the tip of the stomach off, squeezing the contents out like a tube of toothpaste. They swallow their prey whole, which allowed me to more easily identify what is inside. I found shrimp, small fish, and even a baby lionfish in the stomachs.
While our study shows that the invasive fish are increasing in size, a more extensive study is needed to determine the effects of lionfish on the coral reefs of Bocas del Toro. We hope students in next years Fieldwork in Coastal Management class will continue our study to track the effects lionfish are having on the beautiful coral reefs of Bocas del Toro.
What can we do to stop increasing Lionfish populations? Comment below.
This blog post is part of a series of stories written by RSMAS graduate students enrolled in the Spring 2012 Scientific Communications (RSM 545) course.
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