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The seemingly ‘unstoppable’ fish flooding Florida’s coast and supermarkets

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.

Lionfish found off the water of Florida
Source: usgs.gov
Lionfish found off the water of Florida

Schofield said the only way to control the growing population is to remove them. But taming the lionfish population will be no easy feat. The fish's reproductive habits may bolster their successful invasion. Females may be able to spawn as often as every four days, which could result in the release of up to 2 million eggs a year from a single fish, according to USGS.

The creatures also like to hang out in crowded reefs and do not respond to bait. The only current way to catch them is with spears or nets — which is incredibly time consuming and at times ineffective, Schofield said.

Bowman said hunting could help. By hunting these fish and selling them to the markets she is reducing the population. But for Bowman, her other concern is educating the public that these fish are not poisonous.

"Lionfish are not poisonous, they're venomous," she said. "It is a hurdle to let people know that."

And Bowman says these fish are, in fact, quite delicious.

Rachel Bowman hunting lionfish in the Florida Keys. Bowman has been hunting lionfish for about four years. Source: Rachel Bowman

"Lionfish have the texture of snappers with the flavor of hogfish," she said. "It is a flaky white meat. It is very mild. It is also enjoyed raw."

For now, lionfish is available all of Whole Foods' 26 stores in Florida, and, since July, other select locations, where it sells for about $9.99 per pound, a spokeswoman for the grocery chain said.

Amanda Nalley, public information specialist for Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, cautioned that there is still a lot of research to be done on lionfish. For one, researchers need to collect more data on the effects of lionfish eating important algae-consuming creatures, which keep the algae from growing on the coral reefs and killing them. Coral reefs are some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, housing tens of thousands of marine species.

And recent habitat modeling studies suggest lionfish are likely to expand along the Atlantic coast of South America as far south as Uruguay.

But there are other ideas. Several groups in Florida are working on a trap that can specifically catch lionfish while not harming other wildlife. Although many of the details are under wraps, the technology is progressing.

"People get really depressed when they see the spread of lionfish and we don't have many tools to combat them," Schofield said. "But we can't lose the lesson of lionfish. This invasion probably started off with very few individuals and now it has expanded. ... We really need to educate the public on prevention of introduction."

Nalley echoed this sentiment: "Always make sure you are responsible pet owner."

(UPDATE: This story was updated to reflect Whole Foods' decision to select lionfish in additional markets.)