Invasive Lionfish Are Like a Living, Breathing, Devastating Oil Spill

Meet the lionfish - the poisonous and ravenous fish that is making its way across the Atlantic ocean like a slowly crawling, devastating oil spill

Yvonne Liu

If there are things in this world we can all agree are bad, hangnails, world hunger and oil spills might be a few of them. But invasive species are up there, too. Now consider the lionfish—the beautiful, poisonous and ravenous fish that is making its invasive way across the Atlantic ocean like a slow-crawling, devastating oil spill.

The comparison is apt in a few ways, says NPR:

They reproduce every few days and eat anything that fits into their mouths. And nothing eats them because they’re covered with venomous spines.

Since it was first sighted in 1985, the lionfish has expanded its turf from Florida, all the way up to New York City and down to Venezuela, some 10,000 miles away from its native habitat in the South Pacific Ocean.

There are tons of myths about how the lionfish “spill” started. Some say that Hurricane Andrew destroyed a collector’s tanks, releasing the spiny demons into the ocean. Others claim that they were released maliciously. More likely, they came in ballast water on ships, or escaped from an aquarium shipment. But in reality, nobody knows.

Researchers who study lionfish genetics say that the current invaders are all very similar, genetically, which indicate that the current population came from just a few rogue individuals. One study puts the number at about eight original females. Others say it only requires three. Smithsonian reported on the invasion in 2009:

But soon those lionfish began to breed a dynasty. They laid hundreds of gelatinous eggs that released microscopic lionfish larvae. The larvae drifted on the current. They grew into adults, capable of reproducing every 55 days and during all seasons of the year. The fish, unknown in the Americas 30 years ago, settled on reefs, wrecks and ledges. And that’s when scientists, divers and fishermen began to notice.

Everywhere the lionfish arrives, it begins to slowly nibble away at the local flora and fauna. And since nothing eats it, it creeps along, much like an oil spill, until some sort of external force comes in to clean up. For oil spills, we have all sorts of ways to scoop and sponge and remove the offending sticky substance. But for lionfish, there’s really just one option: kill them. Kill them in large numbers, preferably. To encourage people to do so, several places have come up with recipes for cooking and eating the colorful, poisonous critters.

“The flesh is actually very light and delicate,” REEF’s Lad Adkins told NPR. “It’s not strong flavored. So you can season it many different ways. It’s a great eating fish.”

So, like oil spills, lionfish are creep into an area, kill everything and stick around until we humans decide to do something about it. The only difference is you can’t make tasty tacos out of oil spills.

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