A ban on the importation of all lionfish will go into effect Friday in Florida.
The spiny, striped fish is popular in aquariums but is considered an invasive species and has had a negative impact on the ecosystem, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the organization behind the ban.
So what exactly are lionfish and is this an issue elsewhere? USA TODAY Network answers some key questions about this colorful fish.
Where are they from, and how did they get here?
The lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific region and the Red Sea.
The first lionfish was reported in Florida in 1985, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and now the species can be found along much of the Atlantic coastline, including South America.
"It's not just a Florida issue," Amanda Nalley, a spokeswoman for the commission, told USA TODAY Network. "They're found year-round from Texas to North Carolina and have been found all the way up to Rhode Island" during certain portions of the year, she said.
It's unclear whether the lionfish was introduced to the Atlantic coast by intentional or unintentional release of imported species, though it's likely the source of the release was people who had them as pets.
"The genetics have been traced back to just a few founding fish that started this entire invasion," Lad Akins, director of special projects for REEF, a conservation group that studies marine ecosystems, told USA TODAY Network.
Akins compared the lionfish to pythons in Florida. The snake is not native to the region, but now has an established population because imported animals were released into the wild.
Why should people care about their population levels?
With a voracious appetite, lionfish are impacting the ecosystem in a variety of ways.
They eat economically important fish such as grouper and snapper when they are small and more vulnerable, meaning that fewer of those fish make it to maturity, which hurts the fishing industry. Lionfish also eat the prey that grouper and snapper would have consumed, Edie Widder, CEO and senior scientist of ORCA, an ocean research and conservation organization, told USA TODAY Network.
Lionfish also eat other species that help keep the habitat in check, such as Parrot fish, which consume algae, as well as marine life that is recreationally important, such as small, colorful fish that divers a
nd snorklers like to look at around reefs.
Why are they doing so well?
The lionfish population has exploded since being introduced to the area , according to experts. An exact number is not known, but Akins estimates that it is in the millions.
"It's like counting grains of sand on the beach," he said, adding that the fish can live everywhere from shorelines, to estuaries, to a 1000 feet deep in the ocean. There have been as many as 200 adults counted per acre of water, according to REEF and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Lionfish grow quickly and reproduce early and often. They produce about 12 to 15,000 eggs every four days, according to REEF and NOAA. And the fish have long lifespans and can live for decades.
"They are perfect breeding and eating machines," according to Widder.
Will this ban have an effect?
State officials hope that the ban will keep new fish from entering the state and will encourage those interested in having a lionfish for their aquariums to catch one from Florida waters. Florida is the only state to have such a ban at this time, according to Akins.
Eradication is not on the table at this point, according to Akins, because the population numbers are too strong. It's really about trying to control the population that is already here.
"It's just like weeding the garden — if you keep at it you can make a difference," he said.
Diver removal of the fish has had the best results for controlling the population, according to experts. Consequently, the commission is implementing additional measures to manage the lionfish population, such as allowing divers to spear and catch lionfish while wearing rebreathers. Rebreathers allow divers to stay deeper in the water for a longer period of time.
Despite their venomous spines, lionfish are edible and are showing up on more restaurant menus, which conservationists encourage and are hopeful will have an impact.
"It's their one weakness — that they're such good eating," Akins said.