A Call to Action Against a Predator Fish With an Import Ban, App and Even Rodeos

 

A lionfish caught near Homestead, Fla., by researchers for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, which is trying to curb the species’ proliferation. Credit Angel Valentin for The New York Times

MIAMI — They eat anything that fits in their mouths. They reproduce copiously and adapt effortlessly. And they have become as ubiquitous and pesky as rats — only prettier and more conniving.

Nearly three decades after a lone venomous lionfish was spotted in the ocean off Broward County — posing as a bit of eye candy back then and nothing more — the species has invaded the Southern seaboard, staking a particular claim on Florida, as well as the Gulf Coast, the Caribbean, and even parts of South America. Spreading gradually at first, and then frenetically from 2005 onward, lionfish have become the most numerous marine nonnative invasive species in the world, scientists said. Along the way, the predators, which hail from the other side of the world and can grow here to 20 inches long, are wreaking havoc on delicate reefs and probably further depleting precious snapper and grouper stocks.

“Our native species don’t know who they are,” said Matthew Johnston, a research scientist at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. “I’ve seen pictures of juvenile fish trying to hide within their tentacles. They think they are shelters — and then they just eat them. It’s a pretty bad deal.”

And eat they do. Mr. Johnston described lionfish as gluttonous, because studies have shown that they can stuff 50 or 60 baby fish into their stomachs. They even have big layers of stomach fat, the result of so much overindulgence, he added. But, as committed survivalists, they also can make do without food for long spells.

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