Lionfish Light The Way

picture of a Red Lionfish

The Red Lionfish, with its graceful fins and venomous spines, is creating a very serious problem since its invasion of the Gulf and Mediterranean waters.

As some of you may know, the Lionfish is a warm-water species from the Indo-Pacific waters.  Sporting venomous spines, they are a generalist, eating everything from fish nearly half their size, to crustaceans, shrimp, etc.  Having been introduced in the early 1990’s off the coast of Florida, they are taking over the Gulf and Caribbean waters.  Their venomous spines are an adaptation that indigenous species have no means of dealing with.  Their presence has been devastating to an already challenged ecosystem.  Starting from that one spot in Florida, and tracing back genetically to just 6 or 8 females released into the Gulf’s waters, they now cover a vast range, covering the entire Gulf and Caribbean region (see image further below.  As generalists, they are destroying the balances of nature, consuming and growing unchecked.  Sturdy, these beautiful fish are akin to the red-tailed hawks of North America; they can live on most anything and thrive in many conditions.  Their only bottleneck now is cooler waters; They don’t seem able to withstand waters further north, so spreading to the UK along the Gulf Stream is unlikely.

Picture of a bluespotted Coronetfish

The Bluespotted Coronetfish, natural predator of the Lionfish, has migrated with them through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean’s waters.

The Gulf isn’t their first foray far from home, though.  They and one of their natural predators, the Coronet Fish, have both crossed from the Pacific to the Atlantic already on their own, traveling through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean.  Initially spotted there in the early 1980’s, they have been held in check (to an extent) by the Coronets, which presumably eat the young Lionfish.  And that is crucial in a species which can breed all year long in warm waters, each female laying as many as 2 million eggs a year.  The Gulf has no Coronetfish at this time, so there is nothing to prey upon those 2,000,000 young — and that’s 2 million eggs per female.

NOAA, the Grand Cayman Islands and other concerned agencies and governments are very concerned about this invasive species, and rightly so.  The mussel invasion is insignificant in comparison to the devastation being wrought by the beautiful and deadly Lionfish.  Roatan reports that coral fish are down by 80%, and that the Lionfish are growing at an astounding rate of 15 TIMES as many as would would be found in their native Indo-Pacific waters.

picture of an Atlantic Grouper, clearly larger than the human diver she faces.

These amazing fish can reach up to 400 pounds. Protected in US and Caribbean waters since the early 1990’s, they are slowly making a come-back, but it takes a long time for that big of a fish to mature.

In the Mediterranean, the challenge isn’t as significant because both made their way through the Suez Canal on their own, Nature’s balances traveling together, and the Mediterranean Grouper may also play a part in keeping them in check.

But in the Gulf, the only possible natural predators are Grouper fish and certain species of shark.  Eels have been seen to eat them, but it is not known if they are later affected by the venom.  Grouper spawning sites are under total restriction of any exploitation until 2019 in the Grand Cayman islands, but the Atlantic Grouper’s numbers are so low that they cannot be counted on to take the place of the Pacific Grouper, which is a natural predator in the Lionfish’s natural ranges.  The notion of introducing Coronetfish into the Gulf may seem to have merit, but meddling is what has caused this catastrophe in the first place.
So why is the title of this article suggesting that they are lighting the way?  In both cases, the introduction of the non-indigenous species to the Gulf waters, and the creation of the Suez Canal, man’s interference has caused this.  (The Suez and Panama canals both link the Pacific to the Atlantic, removing the natural barriers which have existed for countless thousands of years.)  In their natural waters, they have natural enemies.  Nature has her own checks and balances, which evolve and change as needed.  And eventually, Nature will balance these changes out as well, one way or another.  But we may not care for the results, because things will get worse before they get better.

How is this lighting the way?  It it is all too easy for us to put oceanic issues out of sight and out of mind.  These two examples clearly demonstrate how human actions can have unforeseen and catastrophic effects upon the entire planet.  We built the Suez canal so that transport by ship would not have to go around the Horn at the southern tip of Africa, and built the Panama Canal for the same reason, joining the Atlantic and Pacific without the hassles  and perils of going around South America. Mariners may rejoice in some ways, but these natural barriers have been protecting balanced systems for a very long time.  What these two examples demonstrate via separate causes and identical consequences, is that we cannot interfere with Nature safely.  We cannot “manage” wildlife.  (ED: Frankly, we can’t manage our own populations, let alone those of an other species.)  The best we can do is to protect the environments from our own species.  Now we’re struggling to kill off the invasive Lionfish, and developing ill feelings towards these beautiful beings.  But it was us who caused them to be there in the first place.  And the blame cannot be placed on whomever dumped those 8 females into Florida’s coastal waters.  There is an entire industry which has been taking these fish from the Indo-Pacific for decades, selling them into captivity in our saltwater tanks, so we can have them as a decoration piece, and Ooh and Aah over them.  That, too, was unnatural, and that is the real culprit behind the Gulf invasion.

We don’t bemoan the aquarium and pet shop enthusiasts though.  We bemoan the Lionfish, and attack them.  We intend to rectify the mistake by harpooning them, or capturing them in other ways and eating them.  “Isn’t that better than just killing them and throwing them out?”  Perhaps it is… but the mindset behind it all is another matter entirely, and that needs to be taken to task.

We must see ourselves as one part of the global ecology, neither greater nor lesser, neither disposable nor essential.  We must not be so arrogant as to act in contradiction to Nature.  When we do, such disasters are the result.  Whether it’s joining two distinct and separate bodies of water or trying to put Nature in a fish bowl, or tapping oil 5 miles beneath the surface, this planet cannot afford our arrogant indulgences.  It is essential that we learn from these mistakes and promote a non-interference policy in all ways.  Homo Sapiens is not yet quite wise enough to be meddling with Nature.  Protecting the oceans means a hands-off policy on and in them.

Moving graphic/video showing the spread of Lionfish from 6-8 fish dumped into the ocean in 1991 to them covering the entire Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean islands.

Animated image shows the spread of the Lionfish in the Gulf since the early 90’s

Take pictures, leave footprints, if that much.

Ocean Armageddon

Dr. Steve Best’s spot-on, thought-provoking blog post, “Climate Armageddon: How the World’s Weather Could Quickly Run Amok,” prompted this, my reply:

The bad part is that it doesn’t take a perfect storm and domino effects to make the planet uninhabitable for today’s earthlings.  It takes just a small fraction of that.  While some may suggest that THIS scientist is spewing doom and gloom, it’s an apt and fair assessment.

Consider the recent weather, the extremes that caused people to stop using “Global Warming” and call it Climate Change.  These seemingly capricious swings are already making this planet uninhabitable for those in flood and drought areas, in places of extreme heat or cold, and creating radical changes in places like Greenland as the ice melts.  In science-fiction worlds, we see human ingenuity compensating.  In that speculative fiction universe, mankind develops new ways to live within the harsher climate.  But that’s only for the rich.  The everyman, the villager, the lower class (even in urban areas) doesn’t possess the resources to have such housing, transportation, etc.  It’s great to say “Well, we’ll just live in air conditioning, as they do in Dubai.”  But Dubai has the money (from oil, how ironic) to pay for those comforts.  The upper mucky-muck in the UAE doesn’t even pay for electricity.  What will the everyman do?  He will suffer, and he will die, and his wife and children with him.

Perhaps this is Gaia’s way of ridding herself of an annoyingly destructive parasite, a plague of vermin that she recognizes as a threat to her well-being.  In the bigger picture, it is of no consequence to her what life form inhabits this rock as it spins and zooms through space.  Quite the contrary, our clever monkey brains have made us that very parasite in just a couple centuries — not even the blink of a god’s eye.  Gaia may not care if she is inhabited by the current creatures or the new beings which spring up able to thrive in the new climate(s).  But wouldn’t WE (and our fellow Earthlings) be better off to stave off that climate change NOW?

I think and believe it to be true that we are flying headfirst towards a precipice, a point beyond which we cannot recover.  If we and the current Earthling species are to survive, we MUST put the brakes on.  We MUST cease use of all combustion processes (as they are ALL inherently destructive and toxic) and stop spewing noxious chemicals into the air and water — and we’ve got to do so sooner, or there will be no Later for us.  This does not mean returning to living in cabins and dying of easy  cured diseases, as some reactionaries would attempt to claim.   We took a wrong turn at the combustion engine.  We just need to go back that far and replace the energy generation with PASSIVE electronic harvests of energy.  The forces of solar, wind and tide, combined with more energy-efficient devices AND a more responsible stewardship over ourselves, can easily provide us all with everything we need.

The time is now.  If we are to survive, instead of causing the end of nearly all life as we know it on this beautiful, wonderful world, we MUST recognize our place AMONGST the species of the earth, toss away the Judeo-Christian “thou shalt have Dominion over them” presumptions, and live in ways that are harmonious with the rest of the planet.  In short, it’s time we grew up… and if we do not, we will not survive this adolescence, and we’ll take every other living being, the dogs, cats, wolves, eagles, hawks, falcons, gorillas, orangutans, dolphins, whales — all the innocent creatures great and small will suffer our fate along with us.  Do we REALLY need to feel powerful that bad, to reassure ourselves that we are in control, at so horrible a price?

A Human Issue

It is often said that the killing of dolphins in Taiji and whales in Antarctic waters is a matter for the Japanese to handle.  Similarly, the Danes say that the people of the Faroe Islands must decide to stop killing pilot “whales” (which are actually large dolphins).  These may seem apt excuses, and may even seem to make sense, given a perfunctory glance.  But such boundaries and distinctions are artificial, man-made, and ultimately invalid.

This is the amazing transformation performed by whaling

Whaling turns this majestic being into this corpse, and they don't even need the meat.

The killing of dolphins and whales is not a matter of national sovereignty, any more than human rights are a state-by-state issue.  This is a HUMAN behavior; humans are doing these killings, so it is up to we humans to police ourselves, regardless of what nationality those humans may give themselves.  Wherever such slaughters may be happening, it is up to fellow humans to stop it.

Just as we oppose slavery, torture and murders put upon fellow humans, we must fight against slavery, torture and killings done by fellow humans.  Similarly, it is incumbent upon us, it is our obligation, to stop humans from polluting and destroying the oceans, no matter where they may be while doing so.

When China’s manufacturing pours toxic chemicals into the rivers that eventually dump those chemicals into the sea, we have permitted it by not stopping it.  In fact, we have endorsed it (a little at a time) by buying those products made in that filthy fashion.  We may not like having such a responsibility thrust upon us, but the plain truth is that when we do not  do everything within our power to stop it, we become culpable as well.

If someone were to set up a floating base in the middle of the Pacific, far from any nation’s boundaries, and begin pouring acid into the waters there, would we allow it?  Do we allow humans to develop or discharge nuclear weapons as we please?  There is ample precedent; we have both the right and obligation to control ourselves, our fellow humans.  Our destruction of the oceans’ waters and her inhabitants is not a national issue.  It is a human issue, and it is up to us to fight it — tooth and nail — wherever it may occur.