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The occasional sighting of an exotic fish during a vacation can be a thrilling experience. However, owing to people literally flushing their tropical fish down the toilet from as far away as Miami can create a tropical nightmare in the Cayman Islands.

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The arrival of a small Pacific Ocean fish in local waters may have serious consequences for both divers in Cayman and on the environment itself. The red lionfish is a native of the Indian and Pacific Oceans however according to recent reports, large numbers of the species have been found in the Northern Caribbean—from Cuba and Hispaniola to as far as Little Cayman.

Experts are not certain how this native Indian Ocean fish migrated to the Caribbean but it is believed that in recent years a number fish may have escaped the tanks of tropical fish collectors in Florida. T

ropical fish collectors tend to favor this 12 to 14 inch size fish because of its vivid zebra-like red, orange, yellow and maroon stripes; and its relatively long separated spines, appearing as feathery wings in the water. It is these very spines that concern divers, ecologists and marine biologists.

The Lionfish is a voracious predator and according to some reports it can eat as much as 1/4 its weight in a single day. Its primary weapon is its venomous spines, which are used to paralyze its pray and then swallow them whole. Of particular concern is its ability to devour a large volume of juvenile fish, shrimp and lobster.

Bryan Andryszak, Assistant Curator of Marine and Research at Boatswain’s Beach, told Cayman Net News, “The arrival of this particular species is a serious problem. It is not media hype. The fish is remarkably well built for what it does. It has a huge mouth for its size and uses a violent vacuum motion to suck in its prey. “Several years ago this species was sighted off the coasts of North and South Carolina and since then it has also been found in the waters off Florida. There are any numbers of ways that this fish might have gotten here. Florida is a huge market for tropical fish collectors, and the lionfish could have spread from a collector’s tank to the sea. Or, the fish could have arrived in the bilge water from big ships coming from Asia.” “This situation is similar to the zebra snail,” Mr Andryszak said, “which infested the Great Lakes some years ago. These small snails started to breed so fast and in such large numbers that they actually started clogging important water pipes. “Any time you introduce an exotic species into an environment where it can breed freely and has few if any predators, there is going to be serious environmental problems. There is really little that people can do except to ask fishermen and sports divers to spear and dispose of the fish.” If divers are jabbed with the spines, in most cases the pain may be little more than that of a bee sting. But in some cases, just as with bee stings, individual reactions may vary, and there is the possibility of severe pain, leading to possible headaches and vomiting; reactions that can be dangerous in the open sea. In issuing a warning to divers in July, the Department of Environment (DoE) described the fish as having a painful and venomous sting, which can be harmful to human beings. DoE Research Officer Bradley Johnson warned amateurs not to attempt to catch these fish, but to report sightings to the department. “If you catch a lionfish while fishing, do not attempt to remove it from your line and do not release it back into the ocean. Please place it in a bucket or similar container and call the DoE to collect it,” he said. Oregon University marine ecology expert Mark Hixon, who compares the lionfish to a liquid version of a plague of locusts, told the Associated Press, “This may very well become the most devastating marine invasion in history,” and that there is “probably no way to stop the invasion completely.” Dr Gina Ebanks-Petrie, of the Department of Environment, said that the DoE is carefully studying the spread of the ravenous fish and is asking both fishermen and sports divers to report sightings of the fish. “We already caught one lionfish near Little Cayman,” she said, “and we are asking everyone to report any sightings so that we can at least be able to judge the scale of the problem. We are also working with REEF (the Reef Environmental Education Foundation) to monitor the situation. “The one good bit of news we do have, is the fact that the grouper is the natural predator of the lionfish. This much we know. “So, it is very important that we keep the population of our native grouper healthy and secure.”

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