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ST. PETE BEACH, Florida – With its exotic fan of fins and showy red and white bands, the lionfish has the look of a rare and fragile creature. But looks can be deceiving.
The lionfish is actually a voracious and venomous predator, an invasive species that now plagues reefs throughout the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
“They don’t fear anything,” said Allie ElHage, who has made hundreds of dives off the Florida coast and seen lionfish in action. He added: “They are gluttonous eaters, so they will decimate our native reef fish population.”
South Florida, with a tropical climate and no natural predators in its waters, is ground zero for the lionfish invasion.
Around 2007, the lionfish population exploded, though scientists aren’t sure why, says Meaghan Faletti, Lionfish Outreach Coordinator for the state of Florida. Even today, lionfish are multiplying at a furious rate and gobbling up marine life around them. They eat more than 50 species of fish, some up to half their body size, which is 12 inches on average. Divers along the coast of Florida now find man-made and natural reefs teeming with lionfish, sometimes with few other fish in sight.
Florida spends $260,000 annually to control the lionfish population, says Faletti, not just to protect its ecosystems, but also its economy. Lionfish are known to eat economically important species, such as juvenile grouper and snapper.
That means lionfish compete with recreational saltwater fishing in Florida, worth $7.6 billion a year to the state.
To make matters worse, lionfish have no known predators, and the female can lay up to 2 million eggs a year, which float on the tides, spreading the invasion.
'A bee sting times 40’
Florida is now counting on divers like ElHage to keep the lionfish population in check. As they are immune to the lure of bait or traps, the only way to capture lionfish is to spear them – one at a time.
But there’s a catch: The fish has 18 venomous spines and can sting divers, causing “immediate, excruciating pain,” says ElHage.
“It’s like a bee sting times 40,” he said.
To protect divers, ElHage designed a product he calls the Zookeeper, a hard plastic tube with a funnel top that strips the lionfish off the barbs of the spear.
“You just shoot them, put them in a Zookeeper and shoot another one. And keep going until your Zookeeper is full or you don’t have enough air,” he said.
Because lionfish do not fear humans, one diver described the experience of hunting them as akin to picking apples.
To encourage divers, the state of Florida requires no license to hunt lionfish and does not limit how many the divers can catch. At a recent weekend tournament, the winning diver speared more than 400 lionfish.
Even so, Faletti concedes divers cannot eradicate the invasive lionfish because the fish can survive at depths deeper than recreational divers can go.
Land of the invasives
The lionfish is just the latest in a long line of non-native plants and animals plaguing Florida, dubbed the Ellis Island of invasive species.
Most infamous among them is the Burmese python now proliferating in the Everglades, where the fearless snake can grow to more than 17 feet long and has gained YouTube celebrity for its attacks on alligators.
Lower profile, but more destructive, are invasive plants, which threaten to choke off Florida’s waterways.
There are also Argentine black and white tegus, Nile monitors, and giant African land snails, to name a few of the dozens of non-native creatures that now call Florida home.
Like the lionfish, most of these interlopers arrived as pets and escaped, or were released when their owners no longer wanted them. Once in the wild, they reproduced and started outcompeting native species.
“Animals and plants that are from more tropical regions can easily find a home and survive in the climate of South Florida,” said Gary Knight, director of the non-profit Florida Natural Areas Inventory.
Predator becomes prey
As part of her outreach effort to control the lionfish population in Florida, Faletti also works to spread the word that the white, flaky meat of the lionfish makes good eating.
“Even if you’re not a diver, you can still make a difference,” she said. “You can ask for lionfish at your local restaurant or your seafood market.”
At a recent lionfish tournament on St. Pete Beach, chefs handed out free samples of lionfish, blackened and with pesto. The free samples attracted a sizable crowd, suggesting that the best hope for getting the lionfish under control may well be through the appetite of another voracious predator: humans.
At the Caribbean-themed Norman’s Cay restaurant in New York City, lionfish has become a best seller.
Ryan Chadwick, the restaurant’s owner, said he learned about lionfish decimating reef fish around the time his restaurant opened two years ago. He decided to put the fish on the menu.
“We’re helping the ecosystem and we’re also offering something on our menu that no one else in Manhattan is offering at this point,” said Chadwick in the restaurant’s “Lionfish Mission” on its website. “For us, it’s a win-win.”