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To Defeat Invasive Species, Put It on Menu

Lionfish live up to 30 years and can consume 20 fish in 30 minutes. (Tchami/Flickr)
Lionfish live up to 30 years and can consume 20 fish in 30 minutes. (Tchami/Flickr)
April 20, 2017

NEW YORK – Celebrity chefs held a Lionfish Throwdown on Wednesday, hoping to help curb the spread of the invasive predator species by raising consumer demand for them as food.

The chefs represent the six countries with entries in the America’s Cup yacht race in Bermuda next month.

Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific region, but according to Todd McGuire, program director for 11th Hour Racing, which sponsored the event, the voracious predators have invaded the Caribbean and Atlantic waters up the East Coast of the United States, where they eat the fish that clean algae from coral reefs.

"Coral reefs need that in order to survive,” he points out. “So the lionfish can decimate a coral reef in a short amount of time, and then the coral reef will have the algae buildup, suffocate, and then the coral reef dies."

Lionfish, which grow up to 18 inches long, have no natural predators in the Atlantic or Caribbean so their numbers have exploded over the past 30 years.

In shallow waters, scuba divers with spear guns catch lionfish, but that's not practical in deep water. So an all-volunteer company called Robots in Service of the Environment has developed a remotely operated device to harvest them.

RSE’s director, John Rizzi, compares it to playing a video game.

"It is very simple,” he states. “You drive up to the fish, which is not afraid of anything, being an apex predator so it doesn't swim away. You stun it, so when you put the suction device on, it doesn't try to fight you, and in it goes."

A prototype of the robot was demonstrated in a marine enclosure in advance of the chefs' Throwdown competition in Bermuda.

Lionfish already are sold as food, but the supply is unreliable. Rizzi believes that using robots to harvest lionfish will be economically viable on a commercial scale.

"The current prototype will hold from 5 to 10 fish, and then you'd have to unload it and go get some more,” he explains. “However, our plan is that, when we're finally ready for release, there'll be a commercial version that will hold up to 50 fish."

The next stage of the development of the robot is being funded through a Kickstarter campaign.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - NY