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Beautiful But Deadly

After wreaking havoc through the Atlantic and other waters, the invasive lionfish has shown up in the Indian River Lagoon.

Although strikingly beautiful, the lionfish has a voracious 
appetite and can deliver a painful dose of venom to any fish or person coming too close to any of its 18 needle-like dorsal fins. Photo by Albert Kok

Although strikingly beautiful, the lionfish has a voracious appetite and can deliver a painful dose of venom to any fish or person coming too close to any of its 18 needle-like dorsal fins. Photo by Albert Kok

GROUND ZERO. “This can get a bit gross,” says Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biological scientist Jeff Beal as he picks up a razor-sharp scalpel to slice open the body of a strikingly beautiful, maroon and white zebra-striped fish. He smiles and turns to me before cutting open the plump, ten-inch long specimen: “You’re not squeamish are you?”

With a surgeon’s precision, Beal neatly slits open the gut cavity of the fish and deftly lifts away the grayish-white stomach. “Oh man!” says Beal as he points out huge white, waxy blobs of tissue throughout the innards of the fish. “All of this is interstitial fat and there’s a lot of it, which means he was very, very well-fed. That’s bad news.” 

I’ve come to Beal’s laboratory at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce to learn how he and others are waging war against the fish that, according to some marine biologists, may be causing “the most devastating ocean invasion ever.” Over the last several decades Pterois volitans, better known as the red lionfish, has been spotted off the coast of South Florida and throughout the Caribbean and the Gulf
of Mexico. 

“Lionfish are native to Indo-Pacific waters,” says Beal as he takes a break from dissecting. “Somehow they turned up in the Atlantic. We’re not absolutely sure but we think they were probably released into the ocean by Florida-based aquarium owners. Because they are a non-native species, they have no natural predators in our part of the world.”