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Unknown in the Americas 30 years ago, lionfish have multiplied at a rate that is almost unheard of in marine history. (Visuals Unlimited / Corbis)

Invasion of the Lionfish

Voracious, venomous lionfish are the first exotic species to invade coral reefs. Now divers, fishermen—and cooks—are fighting back

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(Continued from page 1)

Little is known about what keeps lionfish in check in their home waters. In the Atlantic, adult lionfish have no known predators. Lab studies have shown that many native fish would rather starve than attack a lionfish.

Whitfield, the fisheries biologist at NOAA, began to study the troublesome new invader in 2004. She looked for lionfish in 22 survey sites from Florida to North Carolina. She expected to find lionfish in a few of the sites; instead, she found them in 18. She found lionfish in near-shore waters, coral reefs and deep ocean. At some sites lionfish outnumbered native fish. She estimated in 2006 that there were almost 7 lionfish living in each acre of the western Atlantic. More recent studies suggest that number has grown by 400 percent.

Lionfish are even more common in the warm waters around the Bahamas, where some scientists report finding as many as 160 fish per acre. There are so many lionfish, and in such a variety of habitats, that it might not be possible to completely eradicate the species in this part of the Caribbean. Millions of tourists visit the Caribbean islands each year, many drawn by the chance to snorkel or scuba-dive. The sea is home to more than 1200 species of fish, many of which don't exist anywhere else. "The lionfish could have a devastating effect on business," says Peter Hughes, whose company leads nearly 1000 tourists on guided dive tours in the Caribbean every year.

The local economy depends not just on tourist dollars, but on valuable food fish like grouper, shrimp and lobster. A study released by Oregon State University last year found that in just five weeks, invasive lionfish could reduce the number of young native fish on a reef by almost 80 percent.

On January 6, Lad Akins got the call he had hoped would never come.

For the past several months, Akins has used his position as director of special projects for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), a consortium of recreational scuba divers, to fight back against lionfish. He knows how to handle and kill a venomous lionfish, and he's been working with REEF to organize teams of divers who can do the same.

In June 2008, REEF sponsored a two-day lionfish workshop with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the United States Geological Survey and NOAA. Local government, state park officials and anyone else who might have a say in southeast Florida's marine management put together a system known as "early detection, rapid response." If volunteers reported a lionfish sighting, officials would immediately notify each other and dispatch a specially trained crew to dispose of the fish.

In January, a vacationing REEF diver reported a lionfish sighting five miles offshore from Key Largo, in the Keys Sanctuary.

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About Anika Gupta
Anika Gupta

Anika Gupta’s writing has appeared in India and the United States, including in Business Today magazine, where she serves as its first digital content editor, the Hindustan Times newspaper and Smithsonian magazine.

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