More and bigger lionfish now live throughout the Gulf of Mexico and in the Atlantic between the Carolinas and Colombia than in the species' native range in the Indian and Pacific oceans, researchers say. Worse, it's not known what controls lionfish in their home waters — maybe a parasite, or something eating their eggs and larvae before they develop their poisonous spines.
In Atlantic waters, lionfish apparently have nothing to fear except cold water and scuba divers equipped with specific gear.
"They pretty much have been unprecedented in any marine invasion. It's the largest, the quickest, the most extensive marine invasion we've ever seen," said Nova Southeastern University's Matthew Johnston, whose work predicting the spread of other invasive species is based on the success of the lionfish.
Officials have concluded that if you can't beat lionfish, you can at least eat them, even though commercial supplies and the market for the lionfish remain very small.
For years in the Caribbean, dive shop operators, conservationists and some restaurant chefs have been trying to slow their spread by turning them into menu items. Derby-style lionfish tournaments are held from Bermuda as far south as Curacao, a Dutch Caribbean island off the coast of Venezuela.
In the Turks and Caicos Islands, the government once put up a cash prize for the first fisherman to catch 3,000. In Bonaire, where the economy is dependent on reef diving tourism, volunteers are being licensed as "lionfish hunters." Supermercado Nacional, the largest chain of supermarkets in the Dominican Republic, occasionally has lionfish for sale depending on availability.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration launched a campaign in 2010 urging the U.S. public to "eat sustainable, eat lionfish!"
Associated Press writers Ben Fox in Miami and David McFadden in Kingston, Jamaica, contributed to this report.
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