JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- From coyotes to feral hogs to nutria, there are all kinds of non-native invasive species on the First Coast, but of the fiercest predators is one you don't see on land ... lionfish.
Joseph Kistel, Executive Director of TISIRI, a marine conservation organization, said lionfish likely ended up off the coast of Florida when aquarium owners turned them loose in rivers, canals and the ocean because they either got too big for the tank or ate all the other fish.
"They think the humane thing to do is let it go in the canal or the river or whatever. Well it turns out the fish are hardy so they got in the water that way and they basically spawned and just eaten everything and just been very successful," said Kistel
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There are even reports of them being caught in the St. Johns River by the Mayport Jetties.
"It wasn't until about the early 2000s when there was a population explosion, and there have been genetic studies done that are linking all of these fish that are found are very similar genetically and they are linking back to species generally brought in from the Indo-Pacific for the aquarium trade," Kistel said.
Lionfish, which have venomous spines, have a voracious appetite. They grow rapidly, and they have no natural predators. Native fish species not only have to worry about being eaten by them, they also have to compete for food.
"This could be a bunch of native fish species in its stomach right now. That's normally the case," said Kistel.
Fish like baby grouper and snapper.
"They are also top predators, so not only if they are gone because these lionfish are eating them is it going to hurt the local fisherman, it's also hurting the ecology of the reef because without these top predators everything gets out of whack and the whole reef ecosystem gets really screwed so that's what we are really worried about," Kistel said.
Kistel now helps organize lionfish tournaments to try to get the fierce predators out of the water, but he projects they will get eventually so dense in population that they will out eat their own food source.
"My biggest concern is the only thing that is going to keep them in check is themselves. What we are trying to do is there is no quick fix. There is no pill to throw in the ocean to get rid of these things. There is no natural way to get rid of them so what we try to do is go off-shore, coordinate events where we can get people to go out there and use a device like this and basically catch as many lionfish as they can," said Kistel.
"Who knows what the long term problems will be when we wipe out all of our other top predators because lionfish ate them. We don't know the results yet."
First Coast News