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Lionfish Increasing in Size, Threatening Native Atlantic Fish Population

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Jul 12, 2013 09:02 AM EDT
Lionfish
In recent years, lionfish have overtaken regions of the Atlantic ocean and become a threat to native marine populations. Now new research around coral reefs shows that with a targeted reduction of lionfish numbers, the natural ecosystems in place can rebound. Pictured is a lionfish swims in a fish tank at a pet shop in Caracas September 7, 2010. (Photo : REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins )

Population of the Atlantic Ocean lionfish has swelled in the past few years and it is now a serious threat to the native fish population on the Atlantic Coast and in the Caribbean Sea, a new study has found.

The fish have grown bigger (some growing to unusual sizes of 16 inches) and are reproducing faster. The Lionfish are actually native to the Pacific oceans and were accidentally introduced to the Atlantic Ocean in the early 1990s. A previous study by Organ state University had found that the lionfish has wiped out 80 percent of the native fish.

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According to NOAA, Lionfish is now one of the top predators in "many coral reef environments of the Atlantic." These fish are extremely popular as common aquarium fish, particularly in the U.S.

"We expected some populations of lionfish at that depth, but their numbers and size were a surprise," said Stephanie Green from the Oregon State University, who participated in the expedition to assess the population of lionfish in the Atlantic Ocean.

Recently, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had announced that it would be changing laws to promote fishing of lionfish in the area. However, killing lionfish in the Atlantic Ocean isn't a solution as they are a vital link in the coral-reef environment and an important source of aquarium trade, experts claim.

These fish are found at varying depths and in all kinds of habitat. They are even ignored by the parasites and other predators. They have a remarkable appetite and will hunt any kind of fish that is smaller than them.

"A lionfish will eat almost any fish smaller than it is," Green said in a news release. "Regarding the large fish we observed in the submersible dives, a real concern is that they could migrate to shallower depths as well and eat many of the fish there. And the control measures we're using at shallower depths - catch them and let people eat them - are not as practical at great depth."

Their large size is helping them not only kill many fish, but also produce more offspring. Loss of smaller, herbivorous fish in the ocean could lead to unchecked growth of seaweed that could cause further damage to the delicate coral reef environment in the Caribbean.

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