Lionfish Removal May Become Automated

Florida has taken several steps to address the problem of lionfish, an invasive species that can cause the U.S. billions of dollars per year in damages, losses and measures to control them. Among the new measures are yearly lionfish fishing derbies, a phone app designed to help the state collect data and raise awareness of the dangers of this invasive species and encouraging the development of a market for the tasty meat found under the fish’s spine. Recently there has been news about a possible new tool to use to eradicate the lionfish, the drone.

Some young engineers are developing drones to detect and collect lionfish at depths beyond the scope of human divers. The new company, called American Marine Research, located in the Florida Panhandle, believes that they will be able to turn a profit by harvesting enough lionfish to supply the local restaurant industry.

Their goal is to develop a robot that was so accurate that in any given area it would find and corral 95 at the very least. The drone would be programed to distinguish between the lionfish and other fish so as not to harm other fish populations. The largest robot is the size of a mini fridge and the smallest, the size of an office waste basket. In the future the drones in development should be able to reach depths possibly deeper than 1,000 feet below sea level.

Bermuda is also turning to technology to control an explosion in a venomous lionfish population off its coast – using robots to stun and then suck up the creatures.

The first lionfish was reported in South Florida waters in 1985. They were documented as established in the early 2000’s. They have been reported along the southeastern U.S. coast from Florida to North Carolina. Juvenile lionfish have also been collected off Long Island in New York. They are known to live from Rhode Island to Belize. What is troubling to scientists is how quickly they have colonized and spread over such a large area.

Lionfish have brown or maroon and white stripes. They have sharp spines that can deliver a venomous sting that can cause pain, sweating and respiratory distress. Adults grow up to a foot long and juveniles may be as small as one inch or less. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the lionfish has no known predators in the Atlantic which has contributed to their numbers as well as their ability to spawn year round and spread.

These invaders can be found in our reefs, mangroves and seagrass meadows. They are the first exotic species to invade coral reefs. They are voracious eaters who consume more than 50 different species, including shrimp, grouper, and lobster. Their ravenous appetite has eaten or starved out local fish and disrupted commercial fishing. Some scientists believe that lionfish are so widespread that we may not be able to reverse their effect on the ecosystems of the Western Atlantic.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has “concluded that invasive lionfish populations will continue to grow and cannot be eliminated using conventional methods.”

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