Playa del Carmen’s Battle with the Lionfish
One of the most beautiful aspects of Playa del Carmen is the Caribbean Sea. Full of marine life and an extensive reef system, the warm sea waters have attracted the non-native Lionfish. Active in the Atlantic Ocean and seen as far north as New York, the venomous marine fish with no natural enemies has been creating ecological havoc in local waters since 2009.
Although beautiful in their sea environment, nearly everything about the lionfish warns people and other marine life not to touch. The fish’s long pectoral fins is where it delivers its venom via an array of up to 18 needle-like fins.
The fish relies on camouflage and its lightening-quick reflexes to capture prey, which is mostly other fish and shrimp. Although a lionfish sting is not fatal, it is extremely painful to humans, causing nausea and breathing difficulties.
Also known as zebrafish, scorpion fish and dragon fish, the pterios (lionfish) is native to the Indo-Pacific, yet, thrives in the warm Caribbean Sea water of the Riviera Maya. One of the largest concerns about the lionfish in local waters is with the The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System.
The reef system is a marine region that stretches over 1,000 kilometers (620 mi) from Isla Contoy at the top of the Yucatán Peninsula all the way down through Belize, Guatemala and the Bay Islands of Honduras.
The Mesoamerican reef system includes numerous protected areas. It is home to 350 species of mollusk, 500 species of fish and more than 65 species of stony coral. It is also home for several endangered species including sea turtles, queen conch, West Indian manatee, toadfish, several species of crocodiles and the Nassau grouper.
Unfortunately, the reef system is a favorite with the lionfish as they cause great damage by eating nearly every reef tending species, including the algae that keep the corals clean, alive and disease free. Lionfish consume up to 90 percent of the reef tending species within just a few months, so reef death from the invasive fish can be quick.
To help combat the unwanted natural predator, numerous fishing and cooking torments have been created to promote their capture. Annual fishing tournaments from Cozumel to Puerto Morelos have helped tame lionfish numbers while the University of the Riviera Maya promotes an annual gastronomy tournament.
Each year, thousands of the unwanted marine fish are caught and either cooked locally or are readied for export to other countries. The problematic lionfish, although unwanted in the Riviera Maya, has proven lucrative for many fishermen while everyone does their part to save the local Mesoamerican reef system.