Invasion of the Lionfish

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

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

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It was the first sighting in the Sanctuary, a wildlife refuge that authorities hope to protect from the ecological ravages of invasion. Akins followed the early detection procedure. He examined the diver's photos and verified that she had, in fact, seen a lionfish. He called the superintendent of the Keys Sanctuary and told him that they'd found the first lionfish in Sanctuary waters. Then he called USGS, which has been tracking lionfish sightings since 2002. Finally, he put in a call to a dive shop near Key Largo.

The next morning at 9, Akins boarded a dive boat along with a manager from the Keys Sanctuary, the executive director of REEF, a videographer and a local diver who knew the waters. They moored their boat to a buoy near where the lionfish had appeared. Akins and the others put on scuba gear and slipped beneath the surface.

The diver had reported the seeing the lionfish at Benwood Ledge, a coral shelf that starts 50 feet below the water's surface. It slopes down to about 80 feet deep and then flattens into sand.

In 15 minutes, they found the lionfish. It lazed at the base of the ledge, displaying its striped fins and vicious spines. They shot some footage and took notes on the lionfish's location and habitat. Then they trapped the foot-long fish between two hand nets and brought it aboard the boat. They injected it with a mixture of clove oil and alcohol, which killed it painlessly and almost at once.

They were done by 11:30 in the morning, less than 24 hours after they got the call.

The early detection, rapid response system operated like clockwork, but even Akins says it won't work against the thousands of lionfish already living in the Bahamas, or the ones on the East Coast of the United States. There aren't enough divers in those areas, and it takes time to train personnel to dispose of lionfish.

"We may not be able to remove lionfish from the Bahamas, but if we get an early handle on it, we might be able to prevent the invasion from spreading by removing new fish immediately from new areas," he says.

James Norris, an ecologist working for NOAA in North Carolina, wants to reduce lionfish populations in areas where the species has already established itself. He has been studying small populations of lionfish for the past two years at NOAA test sites off the coast of North Carolina, near where divers first spotted lionfish hanging off the wreck of the old tanker nine years ago.

About Anika Gupta
Anika Gupta

Anika Gupta’s writing has appeared in India and the United States, including in Business Today magazine, where she served as its first digital content editor, the Hindustan Times newspaper and Smithsonian magazine. Currently, she is a Master's student at MIT, where she studies user-generated content and mainstream media culture. She's also a science writer, media blogger, and essayist.

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