Alien lionfish could be eaten out of existence

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What is seen as the Western Hemisphere's worst oceanic menace, conservationists, tour operators and even chefs are out to slow the rampant spread of the Volitans lionfish.

Scientists believe the Volitans lionfish, Pterois volitans, entered the Atlantic when Hurricane Andrew cracked open a private oceanside aquarium in Miami in 1992 where six fish escaped into the bay.

Their descendants infested the Bahamas, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and the Antilles, following the path of the Caribbean's clockwise current and arriving on Mexico's Caribbean coast early last year.

They then rounded the Yucatan Peninsula into the Gulf of Mexico, where another loop current is ready to take them to Texas, Louisiana and ultimately back to Florida where it all began. The species has even been found in cool waters around New York.

It is believed a single specimen can wipe out a patch of a reef in the matter of only five weeks and scientists are urging their demise by finding, catching and eating them.

The hope is that by encouraging anglers to go after the slow-swimming species and marketing it to restaurants and diners, the region may stave off an already severe crisis that could lay waste to the delicate web of undersea life if left unchecked.

"The goal is to eat it out of existence," said US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration outreach specialist Renata Lana, who is organising a five-city tasting tour with celebrity chefs in the United States this summer as part of a campaign to get lionfish commercialised. "This is a fish that fishermen can go out and catch without worrying about overfishing so we want to overfish it!"

The native of the Indian and Pacific oceans already has colonised large swaths of the Eastern Seaboard, the Caribbean and recently the Gulf of Mexico, and threatens to wreak ecological chaos as far away as South America.

Scientists report that local predators such as sharks are put off by the poisonous spines and have shown little appetite for lionfish, leaving them free to multiply.

Research is also continuing to determine what keeps lionfish populations in check in their native range. The invasive lionfish have almost no parasites compared to native grouper, snapper and grunts. This oddity may let lionfish invest more energy into growth and reproduction.

They also have shown a startling ability to decimate the local fish populations.  Scientists observed one lionfish eating 20 small fish in less than 30 minutes which is affecting fish populations that feed on seaweed and keep it from overwhelming fragile coral reefs in the Caribbean.