Cozumel is directly in the path of the north american, east-coast Lionfish invasion.
Beautiful & venomous, these fish are an invasive species wreaking havoc as they've worked their way from Florida, south to Cozumel - and as far south as Brazil.
So far, the fight to contain these fish, has been a slow slide into failure. Some places, fighting to contain the spread of Lionfish, have started incentive programs to cull their growth and ever-increasing spread.
In Florida, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation (FWC) has a half-dozen incentive programs that offer everything from tshirts to trucks to cash to entice divers to get in the water and harvest lionfish.
In the warm waters of the western Caribbean, the Lionfish spawn year-round and one Lionfish female can release up to 2 million eggs per year. Another problem comes in the form of their appetite. Lionfish are from the Indo-Pacific region and not endemic to Mexican Caribbean waters - and as these fish are not recognised as prey by endemic Caribbean species, they go unchecked by other marine life - while they themselves have voracious appetites!
“They are eating machines,” said Clay Steell, who led the study for his master’s thesis at Carleton University. “They can cause local extinctions in places, they just completely remove other species of fish.”
Adding to the problem, Lionfish have noticably larger appetities in warmer water, such as the warm waters of the Caribbean, according to a new study (click to be directed to published study)
"Lionfish have been observed consuming 20 small fish in a 30-minute period and prey up to 2/3rd of their own length. Impressively, their stomachs can expand up to 30 times their normal size after a meal. Mark Hixon et al (2009) determined that a single lionfish can reduce juvenile fish populations by 79% in just 5 weeks.Samples of lionfish stomach contents in the western Atlantic have shown that they consume more than 50 different species, many of which are overfished and diminished to already critical levels (Gupta, 2009). Given this extreme rate of feeding lionfish are out-competing native predators for their food sources, as well as reducing fish populations through direct predation."
The Lionfish spread south
Reported sightings in 2000
Reported sightings in 2020
Local efforts to cull the Lionfish appear to have been fairly successful - on the surface. However, studies done on the species in other Caribbean locations, this appearance of decreased numbers seems unlikely in reality especially without anyone actually going to these depths to investigate. More likely, Lionfish have retreated to depth, as seen in previous studies. Lionfish have been documented as deep as 1000ft and have shown awareness and fear of people approaching, long before any diver could get close enough to spear them. They flee and hide and remain at depths out of the recreational divers range - and deeper. There they reproduce and feed, unchecked.
So what does this mean for Cozumel?
While the issue is obviously more complex than just fishing them out at shallower depths, it's a start and better than allowing them to remain unchecked - and if you've paid any attention on visits here, you'll know Lionfish is on the menu! You'll see stickers and posters on dive boats like, "Save the Reef - Eat a Lionfish!" or some variation thereof. There are even restaurants known for serving up Lionfish regularly on their menu, or even as their specialty. Lionfish is a tasty, delicate white meat and good for you too!
What can you do? Buy Lionfish, eat Lionfish, go on a Lionfish hunting expedition... Encourage and support the fight!
Lionfish - it's what's for dinner.