Lionfish in Xcalak – Unwelcome Guests

Xcalak’s underwater life is stunning – angel fish, trunkfish, squid, eagle rays, and turtles are some of the creatures that call the waters of Xcalak home. But there’s another fish who’s made himself at home in Xcalak…and he’s not welcome. Destructive intruders with big appetites, the lionfish in Xcalak are an underwater pest.

Where did they come from?

Lionfish – originally from waters near the Red Sea in the Middle East – came to North America as a prized aquarium fish. Colorful and elegant, lionfish are also voracious eaters. Aquarium owners quickly discovered that their new acquisition was consuming the other occupants of its tank.

When lionfish appeared in the South Atlantic in 1985, the popular explanation was that irate aquarium owners had had enough and released their aquarium-dwelling lionfish into the wild.

Decades later they’ve spread to the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic Ocean.

What’s the problem?

There are two things lionfish are really good at – eating and reproducing. And with no natural predators, lionfish in Xcalak have ravaged the native fish populations. Because they’re not picky eaters, lionfish can decimate the population of a reef. A single lionfish can reduce the number of juvenile native fish on any given reef by approximately 79% in just 5 weeks.

Eliminating the other fish is one way a to take over a reef, but lionfish have another tactic – quick and efficient reproduction. In ideal water-temperature conditions (like the warm waters of Xcalak), a female lionfish can lay up to 2 million eggs a year. Lionfish are well-equipped to take over warm, Caribbean reefs by eating their competition and creating progeny that do the same.

A beautiful, deadly, and voracious lionfish

Are they dangerous to humans?

Lionfish are absolutely dangerous to humans! If you see a lionfish while snorkeling in Xcalak, STAY AWAY and DO NOT touch it. Their venomous spines can easily pierce human skin, causing excruciating pain, possibly accompanied by nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and breathing difficulties.

If you do get stung, remove any spines in your skin, flush the wounds with disinfectant, and use hot water to treat the affected area. Go to a hospital or clinic as soon as you can – they’ll have some great pain medication, and although its rare, there could be complications with your sting.

You won’t die from being stung by a lionfish but you’ll feel like you’re in Hell for about 12 hours, until the pain subsides.

What can we do?

Lionfish hunting is one way that divers and snorkelers take matters into their own hands. Lionfish tournaments can significantly reduce the population – lionfish hunting in Mexico is gaining popularity. In Xcalak, XTC Dive Center has spearfishing program to cull lionfish in Xcalak.

When people remove lionfish from a reef regularly, it gives the fish populations a chance to recover. But a lionfish-hunting free-for-all might not be a good long-term solution.

What would contribute to lasting change, is getting the restaurant industry on board. Lionfish, despite have venomous spines, are safe to eat. And that’s how anyone – whether you’re a marine biologist, or a vacationer – can help reduce their numbers.

Increasing demand for lionfish on plates can go a long way towards encouraging commercial fishing of lionfish, keeping them off reefs. It’s certainly a sustainable fish choice, and lionfish are high in omega-3 fatty acids making them a healthy choice.

And it tastes great too – try it in ceviche, on tacos, or in soups and stews.

Lionfish are an incredibly successful invasive species, and since humans had such a large part in causing the problem there’s no doubt that we should be part of the solution.

You can be part of the solution too – check out the Restaurants in Xcalak, and next time you’re there be sure to ask for lionfish.