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Red lionfish invade the Caribbean

Compared by a marine biologist to a plague of locusts, the species is believed to have come from a Florida tank.

August 16, 2008|David McFadden | The Associated Press

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — A maroon-striped marauder with venomous spikes is rapidly multiplying in the Caribbean's warm waters, swallowing native species, stinging divers and wreaking havoc on an ecologically delicate region.

The red lionfish, a tropical native of the Indian and Pacific oceans that probably escaped from a Florida fish tank, is showing up everywhere -- from the coasts of Cuba and Hispaniola to Little Cayman's pristine Bloody Bay Wall.

Wherever it appears, the adaptable predator corners fish and crustaceans up to half its size and sucks them down in one violent gulp.

"This may very well become the most devastating marine invasion in history," said Mark A. Hixon, an Oregon State University zoology professor and marine ecology expert who compared lionfish to a plague of locusts. "There is probably no way to stop the invasion completely."

A white creature with maroon stripes, the red lionfish has the face of an alien and the ribbonlike look of something that survived a paper shredder -- with poisonous spikes along its spine to ward off enemies.

The lionfish so far has been concentrated in the Bahamas, where marine biologists are seeing it in every habitat.

Some spots in the Bahamian archipelago between New Providence and the Berry Islands are reporting a tenfold increase in lionfish over last year.

Researchers believe lionfish were introduced into the Atlantic Ocean in 1992, when Hurricane Andrew shattered a private aquarium and six of them spilled into Miami's Biscayne Bay.

Biologists think the fish released floating sacs of eggs that rode the Gulf Stream north along the U.S. coast, leading to colonization of deep reefs off North Carolina and Bermuda.

Researchers are scrambling to figure out what will eat the menacing beauties in their new Caribbean home, experimenting with sharks, moray eels -- even humans.

Adventurous eaters describe the taste of lionfish fillets as resembling halibut. But so far, they are a tough sell.

Hungry sharks typically veer abruptly when researchers try to hand-feed them lionfish.

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