The exotic species is capable of laying thousands of eggs every four days, and its increased reproduction in Brazilian waters poses a threat to endemic species in the country, potentially leading to their extinction.
The problem of lionfish invasion in Brazilian waters appears to persist, as this invasive species continues to multiply rapidly along the country’s coast, earning the reputation of a “sea plague”. This uncontrolled proliferation poses a looming threat to marine life and endangers the safety of beachgoers.
ICMBio (Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation) reports that the lionfish was first spotted in Arraial do Cabo (RJ), on the southeast coast, in 2014 and 2015. Subsequently, the species was sighted in Fernando de Noronha (PE) in 2020. By the next year, the invasive exotic fish had been observed near the mouth of the Amazon River in the state of Amapá.
The ravenous predator has expanded its domain, being spotted in other locations such as Piauí and Rio Grande do Norte. Jean Vitule, a researcher at UFPR’s (Federal University of Paraná) LEC (Laboratory of Ecology and Conservation of the Department of Environmental Engineering), deems the situation concerning and in need of immediate measures to curb its spread and mitigate the resultant harm. He notes:
“What we are witnessing is merely the tip of the iceberg forming. This species has already posed a problem in several parts of the Caribbean and has been anticipated to arrive here for decades.”
In the absence of natural predators in our waters, the lionfish preys upon a diverse range of creatures, including invertebrates and endemic fish that are unique to specific regions of Brazil and found nowhere else on Earth. As a result, there is a risk of several Brazilian species becoming extinct locally or even globally. The unchecked proliferation of this invasive species threatens the existence of our native fish, which may either disappear entirely or experience significant population decline. This, in turn, could adversely impact diving tourism, fishing, and other ecosystem services. The scientist cautions:
“The invaders are likely to multiply rapidly, and urgent action is required to prevent this scenario from materializing.”
The expert further explains that the invasive species lacks natural predators in its newfound habitat and has a high reproductive rate, which can cause a sharp surge in its population and have significant ramifications on the local ecosystem.
“The challenge has been monitoring its progress in real-time. Given adequate food supply, a lionfish can attain sexual maturity within 1 to 2 years. An adult lionfish can consume up to 20 fish per hour and use the energy to produce thousands of eggs every four days, with a maximum fecundity of up to 30,000 eggs. With the aid of natural ocean currents along our coast, this can result in rapid population expansion in invaded regions,” Vitule elucidates.
Furthermore, the expert notes that lionfish have been bred and traded in aquariums across Brazil for some time. As a result, humans may introduce the species to new locations where currents are not likely to disperse their eggs or larvae. The lionfish is determined to dominate the ocean, which concerns beachgoers in Brazilian waters. The lionfish’s venomous spines can cause pain and inflammation in humans and animals.
“As it is not native to our waters, many individuals are unaware of how to safeguard themselves or deal with it, which can cause accidents and exacerbate the environmental consequences,” he cautions.
Hence, Vitule emphasizes the significance of monitoring and regulating the lionfish’s presence in our waters to mitigate the hazards to public health and the ecosystem.
“If a person is stung by a lionfish, it is crucial to cleanse the affected region with warm water to alleviate the pain and seek medical attention if required,” he recommends.
Moreover, it is imperative that the authorities take action to curb the lionfish invasion by implementing measures like raising awareness among swimmers and fishermen, promoting the consumption of lionfish in restaurants and markets, and conducting research and studies to enhance our comprehension of their proliferation.
“We cannot afford to wait for this invasion to worsen. We must act promptly to prevent irreparable harm to our ecosystems and native species,” Vitule concludes.
How to identify the species
The ICMBio institute has created a guide to warn tourists about the lionfish invasion, highlighting the species’ unique morphological characteristics that facilitate its identification. According to the guide, the lionfish has white and orange-red vertical stripes on its body, which may vary in color depending on the environment and time of sighting. Individuals found in areas with lower visibility may have a darker color, while individuals located in environments with good visibility have a lighter color, which also varies according to the reproductive period.
The guide created by the ICMBio institute to alert tourists about the lionfish species also provides information on its physical characteristics. The animal can grow up to 47 centimeters and inhabit depths ranging from two to 300 meters. It has 13 spines on its dorsal fin, one on each pelvic fin, and three on the anal fin, which can release a toxin causing symptoms such as nausea, pain, and convulsions in humans. The species also has extended rays on its lateral and ventral fins, as stated in the guide.