KEY LARGO, Fla. - A group of researchers in Key Largo spend their days hunting invasive lionfish.
"This is the first time we've ever had a non-native marine fish invade anywhere in the Atlantic or Caribbean," said Lad Akins with the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF). "Lionfish are a non-native species. They belong in the Indo-Pacific region. Through aquarium-release fish, we now have them here off our coast as well as throughout the Caribbean [and] Gulf of Mexico, so they're really turning into a big problem."
The first lionfish was discovered in the waters off South Florida in 1985. They were then found off the Bahamas in 2004.
"In 2007, it's like somebody threw a match on gasoline and there was a huge explosion of lionfish throughout the region and it hasn't slowed down since then," said Akins.
Millions of lionfish now swim in the waters off South Florida. REEF works to understand and control the population of the venomous fish.
"They eat a wide variety of prey," said Akins. "They stalk their prey just like a lion would in the African safari, so whatever fits in their mouth and moves, they will consume."
During dissections, researchers have found snapper, grouper, and parrot fish inside the stomachs of lionfish.
"One of the biggest problems is that they're not from this part of the world and so our predators have not evolved with them. We don't have things that eat lionfish," said Akins. "It's a pretty dire situation right now."
State and federal officials have encouraged people to remove lionfish and eat them to aid conservation efforts.
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