In 2011, when Rachel Bowman saw an abundance of large, pretty reddish fish while riding in a boat across the Florida coast, she didn't think much of it. But a year later, once she got certified to dive, she speared the exotic fish and recognized an opportunity.
Three years later, the fisherwoman, who was born in North Carolina and whose father was a shrimper, is selling this creature, called lionfish, to restaurants, local markets and 26 Whole Foods Markets across Florida.
"I'm the first person to sell [lionfish] to Whole Foods and to set up that deal," Bowman told CNBC.
And in the Sunshine State, many other commercial fishing operations have begun to sell lionfish as well.
Lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific region, arrived in Florida sometime before 2011. Many scientists speculate the creature was introduced, probably more than once by accident or intentionally. Now the red, brown and white fish is invading parts of the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea at an alarming rate. Similar invasions have been underway, including by the zebra mussel, which moved into the Great Lakes and has spread into the Mississippi River.
The U.S. Geological Survey recently released data to better understand the biology and ecology of the nonnative invasive lionfish. They used genetics and tracking data with the help of reported sightings from trained citizen scientists. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, an organization committed to ocean conservation, did a lot of the data collecting early on.
Now scientists must find ways to control the growing population before it continues to have an impact on habitat and wildlife. The fishing industry is doing its part. Hunting the fish might help with reducing its numbers.
The distribution of lionfish in 1995 (on left) and 2015 (on right).The first recorded lionfish sighting in United States waters dates to 1985. Source: nas.er.usgs.gov
Pam Schofield, a fish biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, told CNBC, lionfish have a voracious appetite, eating almost everything in their path — from economically important fish such as juvenile grouper and snapper to crabs, shrimps and algae-eating creatures. The fish are also armed with venomous spines, which keep their predators at bay, and they can survive in diverse aquatic environments.
"It seems lionfish had persisted for years at very low densities," Schofield said in a statement, "and then finally built up enough of a population to become invasive and spread onto other areas."
Researchers want to figure out where the fish are now — and where they might go next. And potentially, what harmful affects the unprecedented species could have on the habitat and wildlife.
Schofield said scientists have found a wide variety of native species in the stomachs of lionfish. The fish in the region are already under pressure to survive due to water pollution, climate change and fishing.