The Lionfish – Predator in paradise

The lionfish (Pterois volitans) – the very name is frightening. While the lion is King of the Jungle, the lionfish is King of the Reef. It’s a venomous coral reef fish in a family of spiny fish called Scorpaenidae. It’s a native of the Pacific Ocean, but it somehow found its way into the Caribbean and it’s reproducing like mad, living on the reefs at the bottom of the sea where it’s a voracious predator of everything that moves.

One description, in the form of a question, is “What is as graceful and beautiful as a butterfly, as ferocious as the most dangerous predator, and delivers a painful sting with its spines?”

Ironically, it’s one of the most spectacular fish in the ocean. It grows to as much as 18 inches, and it’s a dramatic creation of white, red and brown stripes, and an exotic whorl of long silvery spines on each side of its body. In fact, it could be the inspiration for a lionfish theme for a Cropover Band … have you thought of this? And it would be a perfect symbol of the predatory and corrupt political shenanigans around the world today.

The lionfish has few known predators, because of its venomous spines, although some have been found in the stomachs of tiger groupers in the Bahamas. However, the meat is particularly tasty, and absolutely non-toxic… the venom is only in the spines. And therefore many organisations are advocating aggressive harvest to control and if possible prevent its rapidly expanding population.

Why is it such a threat?

They are voracious feeders. Apparently “they corner prey using their large fins, then use their quick reflexes to swallow the prey whole. They hunt primarily from late afternoon to dawn, devouring fish up to two thirds their own length. (As my diver friend says, “They have invited themselves to an all you can eat Caribbean buffet!”) High rates of prey consumption, a wide variety of prey, and their increasing abundance, since females lay up to two million eggs a year, all lead to concerns that the fish have a very active role in the already declining trend of fish densities. They are becoming a threat to the fragile ecosystems they’ve invaded. They are drastically changing and disrupting the food chains holding the marine ecosystems together. As these chains are disrupted, declining densities of other fish populations are found, as well as declines in the overall diversity of coral reef areas.” Also, the decline in herbivorous fish, which keep corals clean and healthy, has led to proliferation of algae and coral reef damage.

In other words, they are a very serious threat to our coral reefs and marine life.

The most practical approach to controlling them is harvesting and eating them. Their capture really needs experienced divers as their main habitat is in deeper waters around 80 feet, coming into the shallower waters to nest and lay eggs. I understand divers hunt them in groups or “derbies” and this should be greatly encouraged.

Also the BBC website describes a robot designed in Bermuda to scour the ocean floor, stun the lionfish, vacuum them up and bring them to shore – all controlled like a video game from the safety of shore!

Once the spines are cut off, lionfish meat is ready for consumption. They have a delicate texture with a high protein content, comparable to snapper, and friends who have eaten them have all said how tasty they are. Lionfish is one of the many sea food staples on the menu of Catch-22 Restaurant at Sunset Point, a bistro located next to Archers Bay in St. Lucy. Perched on a cliff 100’ above sea level, with a “one of a kind serene ambiance with gardens and deep blue sea, and a panoramic roof deck”. Their lionfish ceviche and grilled or fried lionfish are a great way to help save our coral reefs!

I’m told that Champers and some other restaurants also serve lionfish, but not every day. But clearly we have to eat ‘em to beat ‘em, so go to Catch 22 or into your favourite restaurant and ask for them, so that more divers will go for them.

Breaking news: Liverpool, the city inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004, was a useful model for me and my Nominations Committee for Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison as a World Heritage site. It had similar challenges of a hugely important built, commercial and maritime heritage, but all contiguous with a living, developing city. Just our problem. Massive, insensitive billion-dollar development proposals have led UNESCO to issue a final warning that its World Heritage status may be taken away by next year, 2018.

“A warning shot,” says Henrietta Billings, director of the campaign group Save Britain’s Heritage. She’s talking about the oversized buildings threatening to do a lot more damage to the city than just clog up its waterfront. “Losing world heritage status because of crass planning decisions would be an international embarrassment, as well as a hugely costly mistake.”

As John Belchem, professor of history at the University of Liverpool, who was closely involved in securing the city’s world heritage status, says: “Having led the way in regeneration through conservation, Liverpool has sadly lapsed into polarised and counterproductive opposition between redevelopment and heritage, as if they were mutually exclusive.” Exactly our problem in Barbados, where the inscription has done absolutely nothing to preserve or restore the built heritage, and development is in a quandary.

My own view of the Hyatt controversy, expressed in personal communication, in the Senate and in lectures and writing, is that there are two choices. The easy and more immediate solution is for the acquisition of the Liquidation Centre warehouse next door to the Hyatt site, to provide far more space and a building that would be no more than 4 to 6 stories high and could harmonise with the rest of the city. The other option, which could take much longer, is to apply to UNESCO for re-designation of the southwestern boundary of the site, to exclude the sea side of Bay Street from the Hyatt site to the old Baggage Warehouse. This 600 yard strip has long been designated for development, but this was not taken into account when the site plan was drawn up for our nomination. There is little of any historic or architectural significance left there and it would make sense to pursue both of these options. A living, developing city must not be mothballed. We must be big enough to recognise that we overlooked this area when the nomination went forward, and I believe it can be successfully reviewed.

Professor Fraser is Past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI and Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Clinical Pharmacology. Website:

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