Exotic beauty hides a deadly beast. The lionfish is but one of over 4,000 invasive species found in the United States doing damage to wildlife, plants, our economy and our health.
An invasive species, also called alien species, is a non-native plant or animal that may have no natural enemies and possibly possess other advantages that allow it to propagate to such a degree that it causes damage.
This may include the killing of already endangered plants, habitat loss, damaging crops, clogging pipes in power plants or otherwise wreaking havoc. Their success makes them impossible to eradicate and very difficult to control.
One example, the lionfish, is of great concern in the Southern United States, killing off 65% of the local fish population within two years. Some of these prey fish are critical for cleaning the coral, so the coral reefs are also dying off.
It's believed this invasion was caused by a few pet lionfish owners releasing them into the wild from their home aquariums.
The lionfish has no natural predator in the United States. It is carnivorous and eats voraciously. A single female lionfish can lay over two million eggs a year.
Lionfish are difficult to eradicate because they hang out on the sea floor, up to 1,000 ft down. They cannot be caught by nets, nor by fishing hook and line. A diver needs to spear them one at a time. Their venomous sting is 50 times more painful than a wasp's and can take months to heal. Divers need to carry special hard-shelled containers for their catches to protect themselves from the lionfish barbs.
This is one of approximately 4,300 invasive species currently causing loss of wildlife and income in the United States.
How do invasive species get here? People, and the goods we use, travel around the world very quickly and often carry uninvited species with them.
As people become more aware of invasive species and how to prevent them, the situation can improve.
In the case of the lionfish, people have discovered it is delicious to eat. High demand from restaurants is now putting a dent in the lionfish population. The lionfish will never be eradicated, but as long as we have hungry diners, there's a chance of getting them under control.