The Spill

Meet the Lionfish, a Spiky Reminder of the Gulf’s Ecological Woes

Advocates look to the BP settlement to address invasive species and lingering effects of Deepwater Horizon.

By Morgan Kinney April 11, 2017

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Taking over.

Exactly how lionfish ended up in the Gulf of Mexico is a bit of a head-scratcher. The spectacularly spiked and striped foreigners were not seen outside the Pacific before a few decades ago. One popular (and probably apocryphal) explanation is that Florida’s Hurricane Andrew released a handful of captive specimens in 1992, and, the thinking goes, the problem snowballed from there.

But regardless of origin story, the pests have grown so numerous that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department lists lionfish as one of the state’s “biggest threats” to waterways. An array of venomous spines ensures the invasive species has no predators in the Gulf; Smithsonian magazine writes that “many native fish would rather starve than attack a lionfish.” Lionfish have therefore flourished, ravaging reef fish from Florida to Texas and limiting food sources for species such as red snapper.

Monitoring this lionfish population is just one goal of a new report from Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group hoping to influence how a chunk of the $20 billion Deepwater Horizon settlement is spent. Even seven years after the oil rig exploded to kill 11 workers and spill millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf, cleanup remains incomplete: As Ocean Conservancy reports, “an area 20 times the size of Manhattan is still polluted by oil on the Gulf seafloor.”

Kara Lankford, director of Ocean Conservancy’s Gulf Restoration Program, says this settlement funding is an opportunity to finally resolve the spill’s lingering effects and address the Gulf’s broader ecological issues, including lionfish. For instance, that Manhattan-sized oil deposit sits atop a region of deep water corals that provide habitat and spawning grounds for a range of species. As the coral withers, there is a ripple effect throughout the ecosystem.

“If your home dies, if your food source dies, you're going to die,” Lankford says. “There's all these food chain impacts from this sitting at the bottom of the ocean floor.”

Lankford’s message is that the long-term impacts of the spill exist beyond the coast. Ocean Conservancy’s recommendations call for increased monitoring of animal populations, tracking of migrations, and filling in the “knowledge gaps” in our understanding of the ocean ecosystem. The report repeats the oft-cited truism that scientists know more about the surface of the moon than they do about the ocean floor. And even though these scientific goals may seem limited in their appeal, Lankford says the practical implications should be clear to anyone after 2010.

“People who enjoy Gulf seafood maybe didn't realize it until during the height of the spill how reliant we are on the Gulf of Mexico for the things we eat,” Lankford says. “Vacations – during the spill, that was taken away from us. The disaster really highlighted how valuable this incredible ecosystem is to the entire nation.”

About $1 billion of the BP settlement will be disbursed over 15 years for open ocean research causes like the ones Ocean Conservancy recommends. Yes, dead dolphins wash ashore less frequently and the beaches of Louisiana, Florida, and Alabama remain clear of oil slicks, but Lankford says monitoring beyond the coasts is required to mitigate long-term impacts of an unprecedented disaster. Working toward that goal also provides a valuable roadmap for recovery should a similar ecological disaster occur again.

As for the lionfish problem, Lankford offers one immediate solution: “They're tasty to eat.”

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