Lionfish roar into Texas coastal waters

Exotic invasive species known to decimate native fish populations

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – The Packery Channel is a popular fishing spot for Padre Island locals and visitors. It's also ground zero for a fish invasion.

The invaders are lionfish and a few days ago a fisherman hooked one in the channel.

Unsure what it was, he called up the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi.

"He pulled it up, thought it was an odd looking fish, not something you normally see in coastal waters in Texas, and called the aquarium and said how would you like to have this odd fish we caught," said Jesse Gilbert, Vice President and Chief Operating officer for the Texas State Aquarium. "It was the first documented case of a lionfish in Texas coastal waters."

Native to Indo-Pacific waters, lionfish were found far from home off the Florida coast 20 years ago. Likely released from a personal aquarium, they spread up the Eastern seaboard and down to the Caribbean.

"They have a tremendous ability to reproduce and to spread," Gilbert said. "They just have followed the currents through the Caribbean and now they're in the Gulf of Mexico."

As their numbers increase, native fish populations have plummeted wherever they take up residency.

"There's nothing really controlling their population right now, so they're just feeding and feeding and feeding," Gilbert said. "The concern for us is they can decimate local populations of juvenile fish, small crustaceans, anything associated with a hard bottom. We've seen in reefs in the Caribbean and some of those different areas you just don't see the small fish that you used to because the lionfish are ambush predators."

Now that they're here, there's not much that can be done to stop the spread of the lionfish, especially considering there's no natural predators out in the Gulf waters.

One way to slow the spread of the population, though, is to convince people to eat them.

"Anglers can catch them. They're very edible fish so we're encouraging people, if you do catch them, they're really good food fish," Gilbert said.

One downside though, lionfish are venomous and could sting uneducated anglers who come in contact with them.

"The whole fin on the back side of the animal, the dorsal spines, are all venomous so they can inflict a painful sting if they puncture you, but they're not aggressive," Gilbert said.

Lionfish are so prevalent in Florida waters that spear fishing tournaments are now held to keep the numbers down. Efforts are also underway to train native fish like eels and grouper to eat lionfish.

"Some people are trying to get the groupers and eels to recognize lionfish as food," Gilbert said. "They're here to stay, so now the hope is that we can teach some of the predatory fish to eat them."

Chris Dziadek, a local spear fisherman on Padre Island, said he'll be keeping an eye out for lionfish now that he knows about them.

"If they start populating here pretty prevalently, a lot of people would come out here and try to get some I'm pretty sure about that," Dziadek said. "They're a pretty interesting fish and I heard they're good to eat so I might have to try to get me one."


For a list of recent stories Tim Gerber has done, click here.


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