There’s a teeny tiny little wrasse living in the Gulf of Mexico called Halichoeres socialis which is all but unknown in the aquarium world, and it may not last long of this world at all. Living over a tiny 10 square kilometer of reef called Pelican Cays in Belize, the social wrasse is threatened with extinction and listed as critically endangered by the IUCN red list.
The fact that the social wrasse lives over such a small area of less than four square miles makes it particularly vulnerable to localized natural disasters since it can’t repopulate from other areas in the Caribbean. Had the BP Oil Spill occurred closer to its natural habitat Halichoeres socialis might already be done for but another real menace threatens to wipe exterminate this species in the relative blink of en eye.
The invasive lionfish that’s been spreading quickly throughout this side of the Atlantic Ocean likes to eat fish, and it can put down the equivalent of a dozen social wrasses every day! Now that the lionfish has made it to Belize there’s a very real possibility that Pterois volitans could eat up the entire population of Halichoeres socialis, maybe even within a few short years.
Ichhyologist Luiz Rocha is a specialist in what we would describe as “aquarium marine fish” and he is down in Belize right now trying to evaluate the state of Halichoeres socialis populations, survey its environment for localized degradation and to capture some lionfish to assay if the social wrasse is already a part of its diet. Unfortunately, the odds seems rather rather low that the social wrasse could survive a long term assault by the ravenous lionfish coupled with habitat loss.
Although the aquarium hobby is not anywhere near proficient at rearing any kind of wrasse species, in our eyes it seems like the only long term solution to safeguarding the social wrasse as a species is to set up “aquarium preserves” where this fish could live free outside the reach of predators and pollution. It’s probably only a matter of time before other small reef fish with limited distribution in the Caribbean face a similar threat from the spread of the predatory lionfish.
Case in point is the social wrasse’s closely related sibling species Halichoeres burekae which is so far only known from the Flower Garden Banks in the Gulf of Mexico. Who knows how many more species the Lionfish may threaten with extinction, and what other reef fish in the future could be under similar threat but with the breeding side of the marine aquarium hobby growing and advancing with leaps and bounds every year, we for one support the “arking” of rare and vulnerable reef fish in aquarium preserves the way we are already doing with many species of stony corals. [NY Times]