lionfish

The lionfish, a vibrantly colored spiny and venomous predator from the western Pacific, is suspected to be here because of aquarium releases. File/Doug Kesling/NOAA Undersea Research Center

A garden full of poisonous, stinging lionfish — that's what one diver said he found on the bottom offshore South Carolina.

The predators are taking over by the thousands, killing off snappers, groupers and other valued fish catches.

Traps to cut their numbers were first proposed three years ago. Now, literally billions of laid lionfish eggs later, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is about to give the go-ahead on a permit to set out 100 cages to study whether the traps can put a dent in their numbers.

None of the traps will be off South Carolina, where the original proposal called for some. But the study is at least a first step to maybe slowing down a fish that veteran Florida Keys trap fisherman Bill Kelly calls "the most aggressive invasive species that we'll see in my lifetime."

The lionfish is a seductively beautiful scorpion fish. It’s so colorfully camouflaged that it blends almost invisibly into the coral, like a rattlesnake blends into brush. 

They are a tropical Asian invasive species that showed up off Florida and now can be spotted by the dozens or more on reefs within 25 miles of the South Carolina coast. They are prolific breeders: a single female can lay 2 million eggs per year.

They are voracious feeders that eat commercial fish such as grouper and snapper. When they take over, they can virtually wipe out other species.

South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council members will be watching the Keys study, said Mel Bell, a council member and S.C. Department of Natural Resources fisheries management director.

The council is an appointed group that recommends federal fishing regulations for the region, including South Carolina.

Currently it's illegal to trap most fin fish off the South Carolina coast, including lionfish.

The council members "realize the problems these fish present, and have agreed that finding better ways to capture them is a good idea," Bell said. "We’ll just have to see how effective trapping can be."

Spiny lobster trappers in the Florida Keys first proposed using traps to control lionfish after their lobster traps were overrun. They were pulling in so many lionfish they began to sell the fish and found people like the meat.

"It tastes like hogfish," said Bill Kelly, director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fisherman's Association. A hogfish is a reef fish loosely related to the sheepshead.

The anglers also found lionfish were thinned and sometimes eliminated from grounds around the traps, he said.

In 2015, Kelly's group asked the National Marine Fisheries Serve for permits to test 100 traps each off three Florida locations and off Murrells Inlet, where the group had won local support.

The association withdrew its application in March after losing financial backing, Kelly said. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has been tentatively approved for the permit. Its anglers will test the 100 traps only in the Keys sanctuary.

"The things learned from this work regarding the use of traps to capture lionfish, particularly in deeper water, could certainly benefit South Carolina and other states," Bell said.

"There is no way to efficiently or effectively capture them in waters beyond conventional diving depths. Some form of proven trap could certainly help out," Bell said. "They are good to eat and bring a good price when landed for commercial sale. Hopefully their popularity will lead to their demise, or at least some level of population control."

NOAA tentatively has approved a permit. The approval has gone to public comment before a final decision.

Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.