What do you call an animal that has venomous spikes, no natural predators, a voracious appetite and the capacity for one female to lay as many as 2 million eggs a year?
Many people might say â€śan ecological nightmare.â€ť And in Floridaâ€™s offshore waters, that definitely works. But the more specific answer is â€ślionfish.â€ť
The fishâ€™s scary appearance â€” striped in maroon and white, liberally garnished with 18 projecting spines â€” is a good match for its problematic behavior. Scientists say lionfish basically never stop breeding or eating. They particularly love young grouper, snapper and other sought-after fish, along with parrotfish and other species that help clean coastal reefs.
The lionfishâ€™s only saving grace is that they are pretty dang delicious themselves, with mild, white, flaky flesh. Once the spines are removed or cooked, they are perfectly safe to eat. Restaurants and seafood vendors say theyâ€™re having no trouble convincing Floridians to try lionfish; they could sell more if they had it.
So how does Florida get more lionfish from ocean to plate? The trick may lie in new technology â€” and in right-sizing regulation to encourage entrepreneurs. Thatâ€™s an effort state and federal officials should get behind.
The time-honored method of catching lionfish is spear-fishing â€” but that means one diver, catching one fish at a time. In addition to being labor-intensive, that method canâ€™t reach lionfish hiding in the depths.
Several options are being explored, including deep-sea robots that spear or electrocute fish. But the most promising option might be traps. These work well because lionfish like to gather in large groups, and tend to remain relatively still.
In July, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission won federal permission to test traps designed to catch more lionfish. But private groups who want to test their own alternatives say theyâ€™ve been stymied by the byzantine federal bureaucracy.
â€śA lot of people have given up on it because of the pushback you get,â€ť says Joe Glass, who heads a Gainesville-based advocacy organization known as ReefSavers.
He says the FWC traps are individually made and expensive to manufacture. He and others would like to design traps that can be mass-produced less expensively.
The other problem: Developing a reliable supply chain. Grocery stores and restaurants are interested in selling lionfish. But seafood distributors deal in large quantities, and lionfish come in small batches. Traps could help stabilize that supply.
The final wrinkle: Nobody wants to establish a lionfish â€śfisheryâ€ť to maintain a steady supply of the invasive pest. Ideally, lionfish should be eradicated from Floridaâ€™s waters, and other parts of the U.S. coast.
Itâ€™s a tricky problem, with a lot of moving parts, and government shouldnâ€™t try to solve it on its own. Enlisting private industry to the cause â€” with the clear goal of removing the fish â€” makes sense, and might also make for good eating.