Washington, July 18 : A new study has found that invasion of predatory lionfish in the Caribbean region is leading to the decimation of tropical fish populations and threatening coral reefs.
Conducted by scientists from the Oregon State University (OSU), the study found that within a short period after the entry of lionfish into an area, the survival of other reef fishes is slashed by about 80 percent.
According to the team, aside from the rapid and immediate mortality of marine life, the loss of herbivorous fish also sets the stage for seaweeds to potentially overwhelm the coral reefs and disrupt the delicate ecological balance in which they exist.
"Following on the heels of overfishing, sediment depositions, nitrate pollution in some areas, coral bleaching caused by global warming, and increasing ocean acidity caused by carbon emissions, the lionfish invasion is a serious concern," said Mark Hixon, an OSU professor of zoology and expert on coral reef ecology.
The study is the first to quantify the severity of the crisis posed by this invasive species, which is native to the tropical Pacific and Indian Ocean and has few natural enemies to help control it in the Atlantic Ocean.
It is believed that the first lionfish - a beautiful fish with dramatic coloring and large, spiny fins - were introduced into marine waters off Florida in the early 1990s from local aquariums or fish hobbyists.
They have since spread across much of the Caribbean Sea and north along the United States coast as far as Rhode Island.
"This is a new and voracious predator on these coral reefs and it's undergoing a population explosion," said Hixon.
"The threats to coral reefs all over the world were already extreme, and they now have to deal with this alien predator in the Atlantic. These fish eat many other species and they seem to eat constantly," he added.
In studies on controlled plots, the OSU scientists determined that lionfish reduced young juvenile fish populations by 79 percent in only a five-week period. Many species were affected, including cardinalfish, parrotfish, damselfish and others.
One large lionfish was observed consuming 20 small fish in a 30-minute period.
Lionfish are carnivores that can eat other fish up to two-thirds their own length, while they are protected from other predators by long, poisonous spines.
In the Atlantic Ocean, native fish have never seen them before and have no recognition of danger.
According to Hixon, lionfish feed in a way that no Atlantic Ocean fish has ever encountered. Native fish literally don't know what hit them.
"We have to figure out something to do about this invasion before it causes a major crisis," he said.