Venomous, invasive lionfish which are wreaking havoc on Caribbean reef ecosystems, may have met their match in the Florida Keys through a program aimed at stamping the creatures out. Rough Cut (no reporter narration).
ROUGH CUT (No reporter narration) STORY: Venomous, rapidly reproducing lionfish, which will consume most native fish species in their path, are invading the Caribbean and wreaking havoc on the ocean's ecosystem, according to the Key Largo-based, Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), a marine conservation organization. Though it's unclear how the fish first arrived in the Atlantic Ocean, experts believe they could simply have been "unwanted pets" dumped into the water by their owners. And they're breeding uncontrollably. Lad Akins, director of special projects for REEF, says a female lionfish produces about 30,000 eggs per spawning event. He says they can spawn through the year in warmer parts of the ocean as frequently as every four days, with about two million eggs pumped out each year. "They have very long, sharp venomous spines so it's not likely a natural predator is going to be consuming lionfish enough to control the population," says Akins. He says this is a problem because lionfish will eat almost anything available to them, including juvenile species that are economically valuable to humans, like grouper, snapper, crabs and shrimp. "And maybe most important… they target ecologically important species. Things like grazers, parrot fish that eat algae to help it from overgrowing the coral reef, cleaner species that pick parasites off of other fish. And when they impact those populations, it's going to have a trickle-down cascade effect on the entire reef ecosystem," said Akins. Organizations like REEF are trying to educate the public on the lionfish invasion. REEF encourages divers to remove lionfish when they can, and organizes events where lionfish removal is a priority. "The overall population is increasing - we haven't seen the worst of it yet. But we are finding that localized areas can be very successful in their control efforts to keep the population down where removal efforts is high enough and ongoing. For example the Florida Keys has a tremendous amount of diving activity and most divers are able to remove lionfish when they encounter them. In areas like the gulf of Mexico where not much diving takes place, (it's a much broader area) the populations are still sky-rocketing. And many countries in the Caribbean don't have the capacity to deal with the lionfish invasion enough to keep the populations down," said Akins. In addition to individual removal efforts, Akins says lionfish need to be further developed as a food fish. He says they're a delicacy, and restaurants like the Conch House Restaurant in Florida's Key Largo are serving up lionfish whenever they can get them - either from lobster trap by-catch or directly from organizations like REEF. "It's very tasty table fare, it has a very light, delicate meat," says Akins. The delicacy is also being served in New York restaurants as well as in Charleston, South Carolina and Las Vegas. Akins says researchers are looking to develop a lionfish specific trap, but have been unsuccessful thus far. "Researchers and scientists have considered many different options in dealing with this invasion, and that work is continuing. But right now, the only viable solution is to go out and physically remove lionfish from the water," says Akins.