A villain for other species, lionfish threatens ecosystem in Latin America


“It’s beautiful, but I have to kill it,” says María Virginia Escalona about the lionfish, which is proliferating and endangering the ecosystem of Venezuela, the Caribbean and the western Atlantic.

“It causes a lot of damage,” adds the nurse and amateur underwater fisherman who participates in a contest sponsored by the Venezuelan government to contain the species.

The also known as flying scorpion fish or zebra is usually brightly colored, has spectacular spines and fins, but is poisonous. Originally from the Indian and Pacific oceans, the animal has been spreading between the coasts of Florida and northern Brazil.

In Fernando de Noronha, there was a record of 11 occurrences of the animal in less than two months. ICMBio (Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation) also cataloged an appearance in the country in December of last year.

Insatiable, it feeds on eggs, small fish, crustaceans and molluscs, being responsible, in part, for the decline of other species in the region, along with pollution, global warming and overfishing.

“It is an invading fish, it has no enemies, it has no predators” in the region, explains Venezuelan researcher Laura Gutiérrez, who lives in the Canary Islands after spending years studying lionfish in her country.

He was first seen off the coast of Florida, in the western Atlantic, in 1985. “People who had them in their aquariums released them because they ate their fish or they couldn’t provide as much food. They released them into the water,” he says. the specialist.

What happened in aquariums has reproduced on a gigantic scale in the Caribbean and threatens to spread to the Mediterranean, where it is already starting to colonize.

Lionfish feed not only on commercial species, but also on crustaceans and molluscs that keep reefs and corals clean.

“We cannot eradicate it, but we can minimize its impact” with its hunting, says the biologist, who explains that there is no statistics on the number of specimens in the region.

The capture is usually complicated, because as it lives in deep waters, this fish is basically only reached by diving in the bottom of the sea. They are rarely caught in fishing nets.

To deal with the situation, Venezuelan authorities are trying to curb its spread with fishing competitions and promoting its meat.

“The only thing that controls it are the fishermen,” says William Álvarez, 35, an experienced spearfisher from Chichiriviche de la Costa, a small town between the sea and the mountains, about 60 km west of Caracas.

Álvarez hunts them every day and uses their meat to make ceviche, which he sells to a small clientele in Chichiriviche. He called it “cevichichi”.

But the dish doesn’t make much profit. For every kilo of lionfish ceviche that costs US$20 (approximately R$109), 3 kilos and dozens of dips are needed, not counting the time it takes to slice the fish.

Unknown on most Venezuelan coasts, the lionfish has already frightened some communities where it was named “devilfish”.

Its sudden appearance, its strange beauty, but especially its pointed dorsal fins that can cause severe pain and even paralysis, reinforced the mystery. And within the fear is the refusal to add it to the local diet.

“We have to introduce it into our gastronomy, incorporate it quickly… make workshops explaining what it is, how the thorns are handled, how they are cut. Explain that it is edible, too”, highlights biologist Gutiérrez.


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