Lionfish Invasion May Be Atlantic Ocean's 'Worst Environmental Disaster' Ever

By Josh Lieberman on October 21, 2013 2:23 PM EDT

lionfish
A lionfish invasion is ravaging the Atlantic Ocean off the southern U.S. and the Caribbean. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A lionfish invasion underway in the Caribbean and southeastern United States is "probably the worst environmental disaster the Atlantic will ever face." Lionfish, which are not native to the Atlantic Ocean and have no predators there, have found the Atlantic's pickings so rich that they've become obese. This ravenous lionfish appetite has a price: the species is capable of wiping out 90 percent of a reef.

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The lionfish invasion is believed to have stemmed from pet owners releasing two species, Pterois volitans and Pterois miles, into Florida waters in the 1980s. DNA analysis points to a lionfish population containing at least 10 females as the start of it all. The Gulf Stream's warm waters then spread the eggs north and south, the theory goes, resulting in explosive growth of the predator-free creature. And with female lionfish capable of spawning 2 million eggs yearly, the growth has been as explosive as it has destructive. (Here's an animated map showing locations where lionfish have been spotted over time.) 

"In the marine environment there are few examples of predator invasions that have been as destructive to the native marine fauna as introduction of the common lionfish, Pterois volitans, to the tropical and subtropical east coast of the United States and Caribbean basin," write the authors of a lionfish study published last week in PLoS ONE. The authors call the lionfish, which has a camouflage appearance,  "virtually undetectable by a common prey species in its native range."

The lionfish invasion is particularly tricky to conquer because the fish tend to stay far down in the Atlantic, making them hard to catch. This summer, researchers found the aquatic devils lurking 300 feet deep, possibly in response to fishing efforts. Since 2010, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been urging the consumption of the creature through their "Eat Lionfish" campaign. REEF, an ocean conservation group, has even created a lionfish cookbook.  

But because lionfish swim so deep, restaurants that want to serve "as much as they can take" of the apparently-delicious fish have had difficulty finding a steady supply. Much of the lionfish that is caught comes from accidentally snaring them in lobster traps.

Also hampering the appearance of lionfish from restaurant menus is the fact that the The Food and Drug Administration has voiced concerns about eating the fish. In March, the FDA warned that some lionfish taken from the Atlantic contain ciguatoxins. The toxin is produced by coral reef algae and is found in predatory fish. Humans eating tainted fish can contract ciguatera fish poisoning, which causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and tingling of the extremities, among other things. While proper cooking of fish does not rid it of ciguatoxins, the FDA does not know of any cases of ciguatera fish poisoning caused by the consumption of lionfish. 

Maybe some crafty scientists can take a cue from those dealing with the jellyfish epidemic and create their own shredding robot.  

READ MORE:

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