You know you've made it as a species when a book about your ecology sells out. When half of that book is devoted to the most delicious ways to prepare you for dinner, though, it's less flattering. Fortunately, no one is trying to flatter lionfish. Instead, the conservationists behind The Lionfish Cookbook—yes, that's the name—are trying to get them out of the Caribbean and onto people's dinner plates, before the ravenous invader destroys local reef ecosystems.
The lionfish is native to the South Pacific and Indian Ocean, but since 1985 it has been spreading like a plague throughout the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, and is now found from Venezuela to New York.
No one knows for sure how the flamboyant-looking fish with its venomous spikes first got into the Atlantic, but researchers speculate that some aquarium owners, once entranced by the lionfish's striking looks, got fed up with it eating everything else in the tank and unleashed it into the Atlantic, where they have no predators.
A single female lionfish can spawn over two million eggs a year and live for decades.
They eat over 70 different species of native fish and crustaceans, including economically important fish like grouper and snapper, upon which local fishermen rely.
They also devour the recreationally important species like damsel fish and seahorse, which bring tourists to the reefs, but perhaps most worrisome is that they eat ecologically critical species like cleaner fish, which keep parasite numbers at bay, and grazer fish like Parrot fish, which clean algae off coral.
"It's really sad to hear before and after tales from folks who are out on the reefs every day," said Keri Kenning from the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF). "All of the small reef prey fish are just disappearing. The reefs just aren't as diverse and colorful anymore."
In studies, researchers have found that lionfish can reduce prey fish populations by 65 to 95 percent in just two years. Frustratingly, scientists don't know enough about lionfish in their native habitat, to know what keeps their numbers in check in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean.
"We don't think they have any predators in that part of the world either," said Kenning. "They really haven't been very well studied, because over there, they just aren't a problem. It may simply be that there are native parasites and diseases which keep the fish populations in balance, and we just don't have those agents in the Atlantic to reign in lionfish numbers."
Besides teaching people how best to blacken, bake and fry these unwelcome interlopers, REEF is also training divers and snorkelers how to safely remove lionfish and is working on developing a trap specifically designed to ensnare the rapacious intruders.
For now, though, humans may have to stand up and fill the vacant ecological niche of lionfish predator.
"I had fried lionfish just last night," said Kenning. "It's mild, light and flakey and tastes extra good when you've caught it yourself and know that there's one less lionfish out there eating and breeding like a maniac."
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Joanna M. Foster writes about the environment and energy for the New York Times, Popular Science and OnEarth Magazine among others. She has traveled extensively in Africa and India and is passionate about conservation and development issues, especially as they are impacted by climate change. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, but dreams of Kenya.