BEAUFORT, NC (WECT) - There's a growing problem in the Atlantic Ocean that could impact our recreational fishing industry.
Lionfish are described as being one of the most colorful, tropical fish, but their appearance in our coastal waters a decade ago was not a welcome site. No one is quite sure how they became so plentiful in our coastal waters, because they are native to the Indian Pacific oceanic region.
Researchers have found the lionfish are eating many of our native fish, like grouper and snapper, which could have an impact on fishing.
"We're concerned about the invasion because of the impact it can have on the reef fish community," said Doctor James Morris at the NOAA lab in Beaufort, North Carolina. "We're talking about the interaction with economically important species like snapper and grouper."
The lionfish is also one of the most poisonous fish on the ocean floor with venomous dorsal spines that are used for defense.
The tropical fish is rarely found close to the shoreline, as they tend to live where the water is over 150 feet deep. But Debby Boyce, who owns Discovery Diving in Beaufort, said she's seen her share of lionfish in areas off of North Carolina.
"They are eating all of the juvenile grouper and snapper offshore, which are already having population issues," explained Boyce. "And if they are not eating the juvenile snapper and grouper themselves, they are eating the foods that the grouper and snapper feed on".
Boyce and other researchers admit lionfish have become too established to be eliminated from our coastal waters. So, Boyce and Dr. Morris are trying to get more lionfish caught commercially to be sold in high-end restaurants.
"It is a good fish to eat," said Morris. "They are in the nature range. It is a scorpion fish which is the base for some popular French cuisine -- it is not a far-fetched idea".
"It is a very white, sweet meat fish, and has good texture to it" said Boyce. "So if we find an easy way for them to be mass harvested, then it would be a win-win for the fishermen, and it would be a sustainable seafood product that is out there for the restaurants and markets. It would also be helpful to the environment to control the invasive species that has come to this area".
For now, catching lionfish by spearing them on diving trips is about the only way to attempt to limit their number and at depths they live, that is proving to be difficult.
So in the meanwhile, more government research and private dives are continuing, while the race is one to find more efficient ways to harvest the growing lionfish population before they do even more damage to the normal fishing stock found in the coastal waters of North Carolina.