Compared to threats like pollution, tourism, development, and climate change, the ornately frilled lionfish might not seem like much of a menace to the world's seas. But this exotic aquatic creature—an invasive and voracious predator—has been the scourge of the western Atlantic, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico for most of the past decade, as Al Jazeera America reports.
In the 1980s, erstwhile aquarium owners reportedly dumped their lionfish—which are native to the Pacific and Indian oceans—into the Atlantic. Around 2007, the population started increasing at a precipitous rate.
Scientists don’t know exactly why this happened. However, they do know that the lionfish has no known predators. They're resistant to disease and infection. And female lionfish can lay up to 2 million eggs per year.
Lionfish also aren’t as ethereal as they appear. They are vicious predators, consuming more than 50 species of fish, some of which are two-thirds of the lionfish's own body size (about a foot long). They gobble up juvenile grouper, snapper, flounder, and other "table fish," which are important for Florida’s economy. And since lionfish are usually immune to baits or traps, divers generally have to kill them with spears one at a time.
Spearing lionfish is a tricky business—they have 18 venomous spines that can inflict seriously painful injuries, and the fish don’t fear humans. They can also survive in waters too deep for recreational divers to reach. While enterprising individuals are inventing new potential traps and hosting lionfish hunting derbies, there’s still no easy way to diminish the invasion.
As a landlubber, what can you do to help lessen the lionfish harm? Order it in restaurants. It’s white, flaky, and reportedly tastes like a cross between a grouper and a hog snapper. Hopefully, culinary demand for the lionfish will help control the exploding population, and help reclaim the waters.
[h/t Al Jazeera America]