Lionfish: Invasive species devastating reefs, expert says

Lionfish threaten native fish in U.S. coastal waters
Marine biologist Dr. Edith Widder speaks to the "CBS This Morning" co-hosts about a serious threat to the Atlantic Ocean: lionfish.

(CBS News) Lionfish, an invasive species, is causing serious problems in the tropical Atlantic Ocean waters, eating the entire contents of delicate reef systems and continuing to multiply without any natural predators.

"Throughout the Caribbean, they've been invading the area in increasing numbers for some time now, since actually about the mid-1980s, and they really exploded around 2000 and spread out to the Bahamas and as far north as North Carolina and as far away as Venezuela," marine biologist Edith Widder said Thursday on "CBS This Morning."

The fish, originally from the Indo-Pacific, were brought to the U.S. as an aquarium fish, but have found their way into into the wild.

"That's a real problem when people bring exotics into their homes," Widder said. "Sometimes it's by accident but sometimes it's on purpose. People can't keep them anymore and they can't bring themselves to kill them. So they think they're doing a good thing to release them to the environment, but you couldn't do anything worse because they don't have natural predators to keep them in check. ... In our waters, they have absolutely exploded. They're consuming everything. They eat everything on a reef. You have a beautiful little patch reef covered with a rainbow of fish and you come back after a lionfish has been there for five weeks and 80 percent of those fish are gone."

To keep numbers down, Widder suggests we eat the lionfish. She described them as "tasty" with a "very light" taste.

"There's all kinds of wonderful recipes for them," she said. "There's a lionfish cookbook put out by the Reef Environmental Educational Foundation, and it tells you how to catch them, how to clean them."

But be careful if you decide to fish for them -- Widder noted lionfish have poisonous spines.

For more on lionfish, seen recently in a "CBS This Morning" feature story about a World War II fighter plane, watch Widder's full "CTM" interview in the video above.