Teachers come eye-to-eye with invasive lionfish

By Helen Domske

COSEE Great Lakes takes great pride in offering educators research opportunities on and under the waters of the Great Lakes and the oceans. Teachers who took part in the Tropical Marine Ecology [TME] workshop in Roatan, Honduras, in August experienced the impact of invasive lionfish research first hand. For the first time since it was noticed in Roatan waters last summer, TME snorkelers and divers got to see these invasive fish and assist with a control program being carried out by the Roatan Institute for Marine Science.

The lionfish (Pterois volitans) is a saltwater aquarium fish that is armed with venomous spines, capable of delivering a potent sting. The beautifully marked Pacific native has long fleshy brown (maroon) and white stripes and fleshy flaps above its eyes. These stripes actually help the carnivorous fish blend in with the reef background, making it hard for unsuspecting prey to spot the waiting predator. NOAA researchers have documented lionfish eating many small reef fish that they corral with their long delicate fins, creating a deadly "net" that allows the lionfish to swallow its prey in one "glup" of its large, hinged mouth.

Scientists believe these aquarium fish were released accidentally by a small aquarium/aquaculture facility in Florida in 1992, during Hurricane Andrew. The fish have spread along the U.S. coast from Florida to South Carolina. NOAA and other research agencies are following the spread of this dangerous fish along our coasts and are surprised by its rapid movement and colonization along reefs and coastal substrate such as shipwrecks. It has spread beyond continental U.S. water from the Bahamas, US Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos and now to Roatan, Honduras.

The COSEE GL group saw invasive lionfish on the reef and while snorkeling in the shallow mangrove areas that serve as nurseries for the outer reefs. They helped to locate the invaders and the cry of "Lionfish!" from the group members dispatched a divemaster to eliminate and collect the unwanted fish. Although beautiful to look at, these fish take an incredible toll on the small fish that should eventually go on to repopulate the reef ecosystem.

The lionfish invasion helped to document the ecological damage caused by an invader, much like the impacts of the round goby and sea lamprey in the Great Lakes. This provided a wonderful lesson on invading fish that could not be duplicated through reading or studying. According to Dr. Jeff Hoyer, one of the teachers from Illinois, "I think the Tropical Marine Ecology workshop was the most informative workshop I have ever attended. As a scientist and teacher who was born, and educated in the Midwest, I was completely ignorant of marine ecosystems and their associated problems. I have to say there really is nothing like a first-hand experience on a coral reef to translate the wonder of these systems. As a 20 year veteran teacher I am always looking for new ways to hook kids on science. Marine life forms are so captivating that I think every school could get enough kids to fill a marine biology class. Even though I teach environmental science in the Midwest, most problem in marine systems can be traced back to things we do on land, so there is a ton of environmental choices we can study even with our land-locked students."

Although Tropical Marine Ecology provides many hands-on learning experiences for COSEE GL educators, the chance to see an invasion in its infancy and actually witness the control methods being used by researchers provided a unique learning experience for this summer’s group. According to David Krasovic, a high school teacher from Ohio, "I feel sad/mad/angry that those same reefs that I snorkeled along this summer are in danger and will be messed up or destroyed in the future." David and the other participants saw the impacts that climate change, island development and now an invading fish can have on the marine environment. A true "life lesson" that he and other teachers can share with their students for years to come.