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lionfish

Look out for lionfish

Hey, it’s another destructive invasive species, aided and abetted by climate change.

Scientists battling coral reef deaths caused by warming ocean waters 100 miles off the coast of Galveston might now have another climate change problem to fight in coming decades: a proliferation of zebra-striped lionfish.

Lionfish — brought to the U.S. from their Indo-Pacific home to stock aquariums and later dumped by owners unable to care for the constantly hungry vertebrate — have no known North American predators to stop their spread. As a result, they’ve been decimating reef populations from New York to Florida since the 1980s, arriving at the Gulf of Mexico’s Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in 2011.

And a recent study published in the Wilderness & Environmental Medicine journal suggests that venomous creatures like lionfish will become more prevalent as the oceans warm.

”They are the cockroaches of the sea,” said Michelle Johnston, a sanctuary research biologist. “They reproduce every four days and every four days they can release up to 50,000 eggs. Plus, nothing really eats them, they have venomous spines and the native fish are terrified of them.”

[…]

Between 2011 and 2017, researchers have recorded nearly 3,500 lionfish in the [federal Stetson Bank] sanctuary, NOAA stated, though experts believe that number is low.

And just as the lionfish did in household aquariums, they started eating everything in sight. A single lionfish can eat up to 5,000 fish per year, Johnston said.

In the Indo-Pacific, lionfish predators include sharks, grouper, frogfish, large eels and scorpionfish, according to Lionfish Hunters, a group that promotes the removal of lionfish from the Western Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf.

But fish native to the Flower Garden Banks don’t know lionfish are predators, Johnston said, which makes the venomous fish’s food gathering that much easier.

“The lionfish are virtually unchecked” in Flower Gardens, Johnston said. “The ones we’ve collected are extremely large, they’re obese, and some of them have fatty liver disease. They’re eating themselves into oblivion.”

Here’s the NOAA page on lionfish. The Chron article is long and detailed, and one we’ve heard before for other species. Scientists are looking for solutions to control the population so as to minimize the damage these invaders cause. (Turning them into human food is another idea.) In the meantime, if you or someone you know owns an aquarium, don’t add a lionfish to your collection, and if you do then for crying out loud don’t just dump it somewhere if you decide you’re done with it. Let’s at least not add to the problem.

Fire ant-killing robots

Let’s just luxuriate in the glory of that headline for a moment, shall we?

Harley Myler is working on a “war of the worlds.”

That’s what the Lamar Electrical Engineering Department chair calls his latest project: a walking robot that incinerates red fire ants.

The idea is to use a camera to identify the species the same way computers and sites like Facebook can recognize faces, and then fire at them with a blue laser taken from inside a DVD burner, he said.

Sophomore Qiuyi Ma, who recently received an undergraduate research grant to work on the project with Myler, said they just got the materials for the robot at the end of November. She expects to be working on the project through May.

The ants, which can attack and sting humans and animals, are not native to the United States and, according to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, displace native ant species.

Myler first proposed the project several years ago, but only recently received funding. He’s spent the last year working on another invasive species-targeting robot, which will help control the lionfish population in the Gulf of Mexico.

Though he originally envisioned an underwater vehicle shooting darts at the fish, which has venomous spines and preys on native species, other scientists worried about collateral damage and quickly put a stop to that.

“The marine biologists were [saying], ‘no, no, no, we can’t have a robot swimming around on reefs shooting darts at a lionfish,'” he said. Instead, the goal now is to make it easier and more efficient for humans to capture them, “just like a hunter has a trained dog,” he said.

I just want to say three things. One, Harley Myler is now my favorite scientist ever. Two, the only way this project could be any better is if the ant-killing laser-firing robots were built to resemble Star Wars AT-AT walkers. I mean, it’s obvious, right? And three, for the love of God please don’t let the Defense Department or the NSA give this guy a grant. I can’t wait till May to see what the prototype looks like, but until then if you want some more practical advice about fire ants, here’s the A&M fire ant page for you to peruse. You’re welcome.

Eat ’em all up

It sure would be nice to think that we could solve our invasive species problems by eating them all, but we probably can’t.

Would you want this for dinner?

It seems like a simple proposition: American lakes, rivers and offshore waters are filling up with destructive fish and crustaceans originally from other parts of the world, many of them potential sources of food.

So why not control these invasive populations by getting people to eat them?

The idea has gained momentum recently from the lionfish, which invaded the Gulf of Mexico but was successfully marketed to restaurants and today appears to be in decline.

But businesses and scientists have struggled to repeat this apparent triumph with other species. Some, such as Asian carp, are not appetizing to Americans. Others, like feral hogs, reproduce too quickly to make a dent. And then there’s the question of whether turning them into sought-after cuisine undermines the larger goal of eliminating them.

“Eating invasive species is not a silver bullet,” said Laura Huffman, the Nature Conservancy’s director in Texas. But it can still be “a way to get people engaged in the topic and in the solution.”

The lionfish, a striped saltwater species with a flowing mane of venomous spines, is native to the Indo-Pacific Ocean and was first spotted in parts of the Gulf and off the East Coast a little more than 10 years ago. The skilled predators damage reefs and devour native fish, and they are eaten only by sharks — or larger lionfish.

People soon learned that beneath the lionfish’s spiky skin lies a buttery, flaky meat that is perfect for ceviche, taco filler or as an alternative to lobster. After a few years of intense fishing and brisk fillet sales, the population is dropping.

But similar efforts targeting feral hogs, Asian carp and the Himalayan blackberry have been far less successful.

This subject comes up a lot, mostly in the context of feral hogs. Indeed, two years ago Texas Monthly proposed a culinary solution to our invasive species problem. It’s worked pretty well for lionfish and giant prawns, but some invasives just aren’t that appetizing, while the aforementioned hogs just reproduce too much to make an appreciable dent in their population that way. Plus, as the story notes, turning invasive species into a cash crop provides for some perverse economic incentives, and likely isn’t a net winner. Make some lemonade if you can, but don’t expect it to be more than that.