Although Florida instituted a first-of-its-kind ban on importing lionfish that went into effect Friday, the move could be too little, too late.
“They’re here to stay,” Roldan Muñoz, a researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in North Carolina who studies the lionfish, told Scientific American. “If we can prevent more of them from getting dumped into the water … as well as making it easier for people to harvest them, it’s a good start.”
The first U.S. sighting of lionfish, which are native to waters off Southeast Asia, was in 1985 off the coast of South Florida, according to Pam Schofield, a fishery researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey.
In the mid-1990s they began spreading up Florida’s east coast and can now be found year-round from the shores of Venezuela to North Carolina.
Lionfish have been spotted on the East Coast as far north as Rhode Island, but can’t survive in New England waters in the winter.
A lionfish database operated by the USGS (check out this animated map documenting the spread of lionfish) includes more than 4,000 sightings logged since 1985, although estimates of the total lionfish population aren’t available.
Lionfish, which can grow up to a foot in length, are covered with poisonous spines. Although they are not aggressive, they can flare the barbs, much like a porcupine, if threatened.