Published August 8, 2011 08:21 AM

Lionfish Invasion Comes to Rhode Island

Beautiful, elegant, vibrant, graceful and unique, but we shouldn't be admiring them in the Atlantic Ocean. The red lionfish and devil firefish are native to the coral reefs of the South Pacific, but now they're not a long swim away.


Unfortunate accidents in the early 1990s have led to their invasion and spread across much of the Caribbean Sea and as far north up the East Coast to Rhode Island. Although, they do not live long in these cooler waters and are unable to survive the tougher winters.

Lionfish in the Atlantic are termed invasive species — a non-native organism that has intruded into an area and may have serious detrimental effects on native organisms, the local economy and human health. One of the most infamous cases is in invasion of the Great Lakes in 1988 by non-native zebra mussels. These mussels have caused severe problems at power plants by blocking pipes and also wiped out the native clam population.

Most alien invasions result from human activities and the globalization of the world market. According to some estimates, the major environmental damages, losses and control measures for invasive species cost the United States an average of $138 billion annually. Invasive species also threaten nearly half of the species currently protected under the Endangered Species Act.

How did the lionfish end up in U.S. waters? It is speculated that six lionfish were accidentally released from an aquarium during hurricane Andrew in 1992. Genetic research supports this finger pointing, but it's likely that "retired" aquarium enthusiasts have intentionally released many more. With no natural enemies and an extremely high reproductive rate of 2 million eggs a year from one female, it's not surprising that they've taken over so rapidly.

Cold water temperatures are keeping their numbers in check to the north, but this is not the case to the south where lionfish are spreading rapidly through South Florida estuaries, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. Marine scientists believe they will have established themselves as far south as Brazil within the next 5 to 10 years.

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