JUPITER (CBS4) – South Florida's lionfish invasion has spread to the Loxahatchee River, which is a major threat to the local ecosystem. Florida International University researchers say the invasive lionfish, native to oceans halfway around the world, have reached the estuary near Jupiter, nearly three miles inside the Loxahatchee River.
FIU researchers say the discovery is important and disturbing because dozens of native species of juvenile fish utilize the river as a nursery before making their way to coral reefs and other marine habitats.
"The presence of the lionfish inside the estuary is pretty striking," said FIU Marine Sciences Professor Craig Layman, who specializes in tracking the fish. "This represents a totally new dimension of the lionfish invasion."
Lionfish are native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, but have formed growing populations off the southeastern U.S., Bahamas and the Caribbean. They're wreaking ecological chaos because they eat important indigenous fish.
The invasive species, which lacks natural predators, was first discovered off the coast of Dania Beach in 1985.
No one knows how the lionfish got here. There are a number of theories ranging to an aquarium that exploded during a hurricane to a luxurious aquatic themed hotel that accidentally leaked lionfish eggs into the Caribbean.
A United States Geological Survey map dating back to 2000 shows the lionfish beginning to appear along the Eastern seaboard. By 2009, the entire Caribbean and Florida Keys became saturated. Lionfish can now be found as far west as Louisiana and as far south as Venezuela.
Scientists worry they will disrupt the balance of the marine ecosystem here. The growing number of lionfish has impacted the populations of indigenous fish, because they eat important juvenile reef species such as grouper and snapper.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina, in conjunction with Layman, said because it is relatively new to the area, other fish still don't recognize it as a predator, approaching it without fear. Similarly, other predators don't see the lionfish as food. With no enemies and abundant naïve prey, as well as rapid reproductive abilities, lionfish have spread throughout the region.
The lionfish's invasion of the Loxahatchee River adds a new concern.
"It's pretty phenomenal to find this fish inside the estuary," Layman said. "I can't think of any fish you would commonly find in a foot of water as well as depths of 1,000-feet."
But what if we became their predators?
"Lionfish are delicious to eat," Layman said. "If a local market could be created for lionfish, the population could be controlled locally."
Population control is something officials in the Florida Keys have been doing. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Reef Environmental Foundation have held several lionfish derbies where divers catch hundreds of lionfish in the waters off the Keys, while wearing puncture-resistant gloves to protect them from the lionfish's venomous spines.
The mane-like assemblage of spines that give the fish its lion-like appearance are tipped in poison that can cause severe pain, swelling, nausea, headaches and convulsions. However, the fish can be safely handled once the spines have been removed and many people fillet lionfish and cook them up just like any other fish.
The Key Largo based Reef Environmental Education Foundation has even published "The Lionfish Cookbook" which has 45 recipes for the mild flavored fish plus tips on how to handle them without getting injured from their venomous spines.
Proceeds from the sale of the book go to support REEF's marine conservation and lionfish research activities.
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