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Lion fish,

yeah its a problem.

The elegant lionfish, once a staple of the aquarium hobby, has become a real problem plaguing the reefs of the gulf and the Caribbean. They can be found occupying just about every ecological niche from northern areas off south America all the way to mid Atlantic states of the US. Since a few isolated specimens were found 10 years ago or so they have multiplied rapidly and now have become common place in the warmer waters of the area. Having lived and dived in the Keys for several years I can tell you they are everywhere and its only getting worse. Not only are they are new hazard for divers and beachgoers but they are voracious feeders and compete aggressively for food with the endemic fish species as well as preying on anything that fits in their mouths. Sadly we have no one to blame but ourselves for this but hopefully it will be a good lesson for us all. Biological testing has shown that the majority of the population can actually be traced back to just 10 individuals from an accidental release from a public aquarium in the Bahamas. This aquarium had these specimens in a flow through system utilizing natural sea water and fish doing what they do spawned and the eggs and larva were swept out to sea where since they have no natural predators and spread rapidly. The other source of these pests rests solely with irresponsible aquarists who finding their pets have gotten too large simply dumped them into the ocean. This should never be done with any kind of wanted pet, let alone one that can cause such big and likely irreversible harm. Many other non native species have also been seen on local reefs but have as yet not become the problem that lions have. Panther and other grouper species have also been spotted in ever increasing numbers. If you find you can no longer care for these beautiful creatures many stores will take them on a trade in or donation basis. If this isn't possible the animal should be humanely put down. While Pandora's box has been blown wide open in the case of the lionfish there are things we are doing to help mitigate the damage. It will likely be impossible to ever fully control this new pest but efforts like lion fishing derbies and removing the bag limits when fishing for them are helping. Marine scientists are making efforts to "train" local predator species such as sharks and groupers to recognize lions as prey items.  We have also found that lions are delicious when properly prepared and are appearing on restaurant menus and seafood markets with increasing frequency. Lions are now illegal to import into the state of Florida. It is however perfectly legal to keep and sell them. All the lions you see available for sale in stores are now locally collected, the vast majority coming out of the Keys. Some have said that keeping the sale of these locally caught lions legal just continues to exacerbate the problem, however, I take the view that by creating a market for them we are removing just that many more from the area reefs. Florida lions are now available in many stores outside the state and that also means fewer imports. The lesson for us all is to remember these are all living creatures and we must be responsible stewards of their care. Know what you are getting yourselves into BEFORE you buy that cute little fish. It may not stay that way.

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