To Save a Coral Reef Enabler

Originally posted on December 12, 2012 By LUIZ ROCHA

Luiz Rocha, the curator of ichthyology at the California Academy of Sciences, writes from Belize, where he conducts research on one of the world’s most endangered fish.

There’s a lion on the loose, and it’s hunting endangered prey. I’m on my way to Belize to see what I can do about it.

Belize is home to a portion of the largest barrier reef in the Caribbean, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. Hundreds of species of fish inhabit this diverse coral reef system, many of them unique to the region. This week I will conduct field work there, joining forces with a team from the Smithsonian Institution led by fish curator Carole Baldwin.

Our team will look specifically at the population status and habitat conditions of the social wrasse, Halichoeres socialis.

But why pick this one species from the hundreds to be found there? The social wrasse is currently listed as “critically endangered” (the highest threat category) in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. There are two reasons the social wrasse is listed as critically endangered: it has a very small geographical range, and the quality of its habitat has continued to decline in the face of accelerated coastal development.

Now a new threat looms, the invasive lionfish. This voracious predator is native to the Indo-Pacific, but during the mid to late 1990s the first lionfish were spotted in Florida.

There is no way to know with certainty how the invasion started, but it seems that some individuals were released by humans, either on purpose or by accident. (The lionfish is very common in home aquariums.) They have been spreading through the Caribbean since then. Recent reports indicate that the lionfish is now very common in Belizean reefs, and the social wrasse’s small size makes it part of the lionfish’s menu — a single lonfish can consume dozens of juvenile social wrasses every day.

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