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Watch: a swarm of lionfish have overrun Florida’s coast

In this July, 2007 file photo released by Oregon State University, a lionfish swims off Lee Stocking Island, Bahamas. Jamaica's government announced on Saturday, April 12, 2014 a big decline in sightings of lionfish, the voracious invasive species that has been wreaking havoc on regional reefs for years and wolfing down native juvenile fish and crustaceans. They have been such a worrying problem that divers in the Caribbean and Florida are encouraged to capture them whenever they can to protect reefs and native marine life already burdened by pollution, over fishing and the effects of climate change. (AP Photo/Mark Albins/Oregon State University
AP Photo/Mark Albins/Oregon State University
By Gwynn Guilford
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Thirty years ago, Florida had lots of lionfish—in aquariums. The baroquely striped fish hail from coral reefs on the other side of the planet. That changed in 1985, when someone released a dozen or so into Floridian coastal waters (or so the leading hypothesis goes).

Here’s how plentiful they are now (via Deep Sea News):

This footage was shot near a sunken airplane off the coast of Pensacola, Florida, by Alex Fogg, a volunteer with a group called the Coast Watch Alliance. As you can see, lionfish have infested the area. But Pensacola’s hardly the only site of lionfish invasion.

US Geological Survey
Lionfish take the Atlantic.

Of course, that’s not all that surprising given that lionfish are among the most pernicious invasive species around.

Since they come from the Indo-Pacific and were parachuted into an alien ecosystem, they have no natural predators. However, lionfish themselves are tenacious predators. One study found a single lionfish eating its way through nearly 80% of a reef’s juvenile fish population in just five weeks. Other researchers have discovered that they gorge themselves so relentlessly that some lionfish are obese—a phenomenon that nature generally doesn’t permit. Worse, females crank out as many as two million eggs a year.

They also thrive in a range of habitats, from estuaries to depths of 140 meters (460 feet). In some places off the coast of Florida and in the Caribbean, there are between 200 and 1,000 lionfish per acre.

The only bright side here is that lionfish seem never to have developed a fear of humans. Of course, that’s probably evident from the way they sit idly by as Fogg picks them off one by one with that Claw Machine-resembling spear. For those wondering if this is barbaric, recall that the Florida authorities encourage divers to “safely remove“ as many of the species as they can in order to protect ecosystems.

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