The invasive lionfish that crowds coral reefs and preys on native fish in the Atlantic’s shallower waters is such a problem that divers in Florida and the Caribbean are encouraged to capture and eat them whenever they can.
Lionfish, which have venomous spines, are a well-documented problem in Atlantic coral reefs, where the foot (25 centimeter)—long, one pound (0.45 kilogram) invaders from the tropical parts of the Pacific and Indian oceans live without predators and eat other fish voraciously. What’s slowly coming into view is how deep into the ocean their invasion has spread.
Researchers and wildlife officials worry that lionfish may undo conservation efforts aimed at rebuilding populations of native predators such as groupers and snappers. Lionfish gorge on the young of those species, as well as their prey.
“They can eat pretty much anything that fits inside their mouths,” Oregon State University lionfish expert Stephanie Green said.
Divers are encouraged to capture and eat any lionfish they encounter to protect reefs and native marine life already burdened by pollution, over—fishing and the effects of climate change. And last month, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission waived the recreational license requirement for divers harvesting lionfish and excluded them from bag limits, allowing people to catch as many as they can.
But recreational divers max out around 130 feet (40 meters) deep, though. Researchers and wildlife officials rarely have the means to venture deeper than that, but they’ve realized the lionfish they can’t see may be their biggest concern.
But when it comes to lionfish, Dan Ellinor of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission noted that those efforts primarily target areas already frequented by scuba divers.
“We’re going to have to figure out how we’re going to get below the diver depths,” said Ellinor, a biological administrator with the commission’s marine fisheries division.
“The other problem is there’s not a commercial market per se,” he added.
Officials have concluded that if you can’t beat lionfish, you can at least eat them, even though commercial supplies and the market for the lionfish remain very small.
For years in the Caribbean, dive shop operators, conservationists and some restaurant chefs have been trying to slow their spread by turning them into menu items. Derby—style lionfish tournaments are held from Bermuda as far south as Curacao, a Dutch Caribbean island off the coast of Venezuela.
In the Turks and Caicos Islands, the government once put up a cash prize for the first fisherman to catch 3,000. In Bonaire, where the economy is dependent on reef diving tourism, volunteers are being licensed as “lionfish hunters.”AP