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How Eating Invasive Lionfish Helps the Environment

Christopher Pala - Foreign Policy
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August 23, 2016
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Stopping the World's Most Rapacious Invasive Species, One Fillet at a Time (National Geographic)

Since Pacific lionfish were first detected off the coast of Florida three decades ago, they have spread around the Caribbean, gobbling up everything that fits in their mouths and reproducing at a phenomenal rate. Scientists have shown that soon after they descend upon a reef, there is a sharp fall in the number of small fish, notably the herbivores on which coral depends for survival. "They're eating their way through the reefs like a plague of locusts," said Mark Hixon, a lionfish specialist at the University of Hawaii. It is by far the most destructive invasive species ever recorded at sea, and the blight is believed to have started with aquarium fish released off the Florida Atlantic coast in the mid-1980s.

However, in the last few months, a set of unrelated trends has resulted in two U.S. supermarket chains, Whole Foods and Wegmans, offering Florida lionfish, which has a white, delicate flesh, to consumers with much fanfare. Early signs suggest that the state's fishery might just be big enough to protect the native denizens of at least some reefs from being decimated.

"If the commercial fishermen can keep their numbers down, we should see an increase in the native species that are being eaten by lionfish," said Lad Akins, the founder of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) in Key Largo, Florida, and head of its lionfish study project. "That would be the first time a commercial market controls an invasive species."

Popular among aquarium keepers for their stunning russet-and-cream stripes and 18 sharp, venomous spines that spread out like a fishing boat's outriggers, lionfish also boast modest space requirements (near stillness is their default state), a surprising resilience, and an awfully good bang for the buck (currently under $50 apiece) in the sometimes stratospheric market of tropical aquarium fish.

The lionfish is relatively common in the tropical Pacific but has a negligible effect on reef life there because it's never seen gathering in large concentrations, though exactly why this is so remains unclear; no predator has been identified. But in the Caribbean, where reefs are in far worse shape, it's a different story.

Read the rest at Foreign Policy

Related: If You’re Not a Seafood Lover, You Will be After Eating Venomous Lionfish (Star2)

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