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The Fish That’s Eating the World

Lionfish are taking over the Atlantic Ocean. Can these dangerous creatures be stopped before it’s too late? 

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    You move slowly, with the confidence of a king. You destroy any animal that crosses your path. Your hunger is insatiable—you eat and eat and eat. And you prefer to sneak up on your dinner until—BAM! You swallow it whole.

    So what are you? 

    A shark? A grizzly bear? A monster from a fairy tale?

    No. You are a lionfish—about the size of a football. 

    And right now, you are causing a disaster in our seas.

    You move slowly, with the confidence of a king. You destroy any animal that crosses your path. Your hunger is insatiable: You eat and eat and eat. You sneak up on your dinner until—BAM! You swallow it whole.

    So what are you?

    A shark? A grizzly bear? A monster from a fairy tale?

    No. You’re a lionfish. You’re about the size of a football.

    And right now, you’re causing big problems in our seas.

    You move slowly, with the confidence of a king. You destroy any animal that crosses your path. Your hunger is insatiable—you eat and eat and eat. And you prefer to sneak up on your dinner until—BAM! You swallow it whole.

    So what are you—a shark, a grizzly bear, a monster from a fairy tale?

    No. You are a lionfish—about the size of a football. 

    And right now, you are causing a disaster in our seas.

Beautiful Creatures 

    Lionfish are native to the warm waters of the Pacific and Indian oceans. But over the past 30 years, they have invaded the Atlantic Ocean. Some lionfish now swim off the U.S. coast, from North Carolina to Florida. Others make their home in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

    No one knows exactly how lionfish got to the Atlantic Ocean. But most experts say that humans are likely to blame. 

    In the 1980s, American pet stores began selling baby lionfish. These beautiful creatures—with their bold stripes and leaf-like fins—quickly became a popular choice for home aquariums. 

    But lionfish are not suited for life in a fish tank. Why? They tend to eat the other fish. Plus they can grow to be up to 18 inches long in just a few years!

    That’s why scientists think that people began dumping their “pets” into the ocean once the fish outgrew their tanks. These pet owners probably figured it was fine to release lionfish into the Atlantic. The ocean is the ocean, right? 

    Wrong.

    Lionfish are native to the warm waters of the Pacific and Indian oceans. But in the past 30 years, they’ve invaded the Atlantic. Some lionfish now swim off the U.S. coast, from North Carolina to Florida. Others live in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

    We can’t be sure how lionfish got to the Atlantic. But humans are likely to blame.

    In the 1980s, American pet stores began selling baby lionfish. These creatures are beautiful. People wanted them for their home fish tanks.

    But lionfish are not suited for life in a fish tank. They eat the other fish. And they can grow to be 18 inches long in just a few years!

    Experts think people dumped their “pets” into the sea when the fish got too big. People probably thought it was OK to put lionfish in the Atlantic. The ocean is the ocean, right?

    Wrong.

    Lionfish are native to the warm waters of the Pacific and Indian oceans. But over the past 30 years, they have invaded the Atlantic Ocean. Some lionfish now swim off the U.S. coast, from North Carolina to Florida. Others inhabit the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

    Although it isn’t clear exactly how lionfish got to the Atlantic Ocean, most experts agree that humans are probably to blame. 

    In the 1980s, American pet stores began selling baby lionfish. These beautiful creatures—with their bold stripes and leaf-like fins—quickly became a popular choice for home aquariums. 

    But lionfish aren’t suited for life in a fish tank. They tend to eat the other fish. Plus they can grow to be 18 inches long in just a few years!

    Scientists believe that people began dumping their “pets” into the ocean once the fish outgrew their tanks. These pet owners probably figured it was perfectly fine to release lionfish into the Atlantic—after all, the ocean is the ocean, right? 

Wrong.

Jim McMahon/Mapman ®

Lionfish Locations
The purple areas on the small map below show where lionfish have always lived—in the Pacific and Indian oceans. The purple areas on the large map show where they can be found in the Atlantic today.

Total Disaster 

Jim McMahon/Mapman ®

    Lionfish are what is known as an invasive species. That is an animal or plant from one area that “invades” a new area and causes damage. Lionfish have invaded parts of the Atlantic Ocean. And they are upsetting the natural balance of the environment there. 

    How? For one thing, lionfish eat a huge amount of fish and shellfish—one to two fish per minute. And they don’t stop when they are full. Their stomachs balloon out to make room for more. Sometimes they even eat until they make themselves sick. 

    These eating habits don’t leave behind much food for other fish. As a result, many fish in areas with a lot of lionfish could die out.

    Lionfish are what is known as an invasive species. That’s an animal or plant from one area that “invades” a new area and causes harm. Lionfish are changing the environment in the Atlantic Ocean.

    How? For one thing, they eat a lot of fish and shellfish. They eat one to two fish per minute. And they don’t stop when they’re full. Their stomachs balloon out to make room for more. Sometimes they eat until they make themselves sick.

    Lionfish don’t leave much food for other fish. As a result, many fish in areas with a lot of lionfish could die out.

    Lionfish are what is known as an invasive species—an animal or plant from one area that “invades” a new area and causes damage. Lionfish have invaded parts of the Atlantic Ocean—and they’re upsetting the natural balance of the environment there. 

    How? For one thing, they eat a tremendous amount of fish and shellfish—one to two fish per minute. And they don’t stop eating when they are full. Their stomachs balloon out to make room for more food. Sometimes they even eat until they make themselves sick. 

    These eating habits don’t leave behind much food for other fish. For this reason, many types of fish in areas with large lionfish populations could die out.

Coral Reefs

    Another problem is that lionfish harm coral reefs. Coral reefs are long lines of coral that often lie in warm, shallow water. They provide food and shelter for millions of types of fish and plants. They even protect coastlines during storms.

    Lionfish prefer to live near coral reefs. And they are ruining an important balance. Lionfish eat the fish that usually eat sea plants called algae. As a result, there is now too much algae on coral reefs. These algae can damage the reefs and even kill them. 

    The problem shows no signs of stopping. That’s partly because lionfish breed so quickly. A female can release as many as 30,000 eggs every few days. So the number of lionfish in the Atlantic just keeps growing and growing.

    There’s another problem: Lionfish harm coral reefs. Coral reefs are long lines of coral that often lie in warm, shallow water. They provide food and shelter for millions of types of fish and plants. They protect coastlines during storms too.

    Lionfish like to live near coral reefs. And they’re ruining an important balance. They eat the fish that usually eat sea plants called algae. As a result, there is too much algae on coral reefs. Algae can damage the reefs and even kill them.

    This problem is hard to solve. Lionfish breed quickly. A female can release 30,000 eggs every few days. So the number of lionfish in the Atlantic keeps growing.

    Another problem with lionfish is that they harm coral reefs. Coral reefs are long lines of coral that often lie in warm, shallow water. They provide food and shelter for millions of types of fish and plants. In addition, they protect coastlines during storms.

    Lionfish, which prefer to live near coral reefs, are ruining an important balance. Because lionfish eat the fish that usually eat sea plants called algae, there is now too much algae on coral reefs. These algae can damage the reefs and even kill them. 

    This problem shows no signs of stopping—in part because lionfish breed so quickly. A female can release as many as 30,000 eggs every few days. So the number of lionfish in the Atlantic is constantly increasing.

Helmut Corneli/Alamy Stock Photo (Scuba Diver); Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images (Lionfish)

Why Do We Need Coral Reefs?  
Coral reefs are long lines of coral. Scientists say that up to 25 percent of all ocean life depends on coral reefs for food and shelter. But because of lionfish, many reefs in the Atlantic are being destroyed by sea plants called algae (shown in the small photo above). 

Not the First Time

    Lionfish are not the first invasive species to cause problems. About 4,300 invasive species live in the U.S. Fish called Asian carp have spread up the Mississippi River. Millions of wild hogs run across Texas. The Burmese python has taken over a national park in Florida.

    The damage these invaders cause can be dangerous. For example, mongooses were brought to Hawaii in the 1880s to kill rats on farms. But the mongooses ate more than just rats—they also feasted on birds and turtles. Now many of those species in Hawaii are in danger of dying out.

    Scientists fear that unless something is done—and soon—lionfish will have a similar effect in the Atlantic.

    Lionfish aren’t the first invasive species to cause problems. About 4,300 invasive species live in the U.S. Fish called Asian carp are in the Mississippi River. Millions of wild hogs run across Texas. The Burmese python has taken over a national park in Florida.

    These invaders can do real harm. In the 1880s, mongooses were brought to Hawaii to kill rats on farms. But they ate birds and turtles too. Now many of those species in Hawaii are in danger of dying out.

    Could lionfish cause the same sort of trouble in the Atlantic? Experts say yes.

    Lionfish are not the first invasive species to cause problems. About 4,300 invasive species live in the U.S. Fish called Asian carp have spread up the Mississippi River, millions of wild hogs run across Texas, and the Burmese python has taken over a national park in Florida.

    The damage these invaders cause can have serious consequences. For example, mongooses were brought to Hawaii in the 1880s to kill rats on farms. But the mongooses ate more than just rats—they also ate birds and turtles. Now many of those species in Hawaii are in danger of dying out.

    Scientists fear that unless something is done—and soon—lionfish will have a similar effect in the Atlantic.

What Can Be Done?

    The good news is that many experts across the U.S. are working to solve the lionfish problem. And they say there are ways to keep these invasive creatures under control. 

    First, we can make sure that no non-native pets like lionfish are released into the wild. 

    Second, we can report any lionfish sightings. The Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) has trained scuba divers to hunt lionfish. Anyone who spots a lionfish can tell REEF. Within 24 hours, divers will find the fish and humanely kill it.

    And third, there’s the most delicious solution—we can eat them.

    In 2010, REEF released a cookbook to help educate fishermen and cooks on how to prepare lionfish. Since then, many people have spread the word that lionfish can be a tasty food source. They’re even for sale in some grocery stores.

    As for you, lionfish, we know it’s not your fault that you ended up here. You’re just a hungry fish looking for a meal—or several. 

    Experts are working to solve the lionfish problem. They say there are things we can do to keep these fish under control.

    First, we can make sure that no non-native pets like lionfish are released into the wild.

    Second, we can report lionfish sightings. The Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) has trained scuba divers to hunt lionfish. Anyone who spots a lionfish can tell REEF. Within 24 hours, divers will find and humanely kill the fish.

    And third, a tasty plan: We can eat them.

    In 2010, REEF put out a cookbook. It shows people how to prepare lionfish. Now people know that the fish can be tasty. They’re even sold in some grocery stores.

    As for you, lionfish, we know it’s not your fault that you’re here. You’re just a hungry fish looking for a meal—or several.

    The good news is that many experts across the U.S. are working to solve the lionfish problem, and they say there are ways to keep these invasive creatures under control. 

    First, we can make sure that no non-native pets like lionfish are released into the wild. 

    Second, we can report lionfish sightings. The Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) has trained scuba divers to hunt lionfish. Anyone who spots a lionfish can tell REEF. Within 24 hours, divers will find and humanely kill the fish.

    And third, there’s the most delicious solution—we can eat them.

    In 2010, REEF released a cookbook to help educate fishermen and cooks on how to prepare lionfish. Since then, many people have spread the word that lionfish can be a tasty food source. They’re even for sale in some grocery stores.

    As for you, lionfish, we know it’s not your fault that you ended up here. You’re just a hungry fish looking for a meal—or several. 

Aaronejbull87/Shutterstock.com (Background); Alex  Mustard/NaturePL.com (Diver); Sue Daly/NaturePL.com (Meal)

Problem Solving
A diver catches a lionfish—which could later become a tasty meal. Many people believe that one of the best ways to control the number of lionfish is to eat them.

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ACTIVITY: 
Finding Text Evidence

You’ve just read “The Fish That’s Eating the World."  Now do this activity to help you better understand the article.

Tip: Text evidence means details in a story that support an answer or show that it is true.

What to do: Use text evidence—or details from the article—to answer the questions below. We did the first one for you.

You’ve just read “The Fish That’s Eating the World."  Now do this activity to help you better understand the article.

Tip: Text evidence means details in a story that support an answer or show that it is true.

What to do: Use text evidence—or details from the article—to answer the questions below. We did the first one for you.

You’ve just read “The Fish That’s Eating the World."  Now do this activity to help you better understand the article.

Tip: Text evidence means details in a story that support an answer or show that it is true.

What to do: Use text evidence—or details from the article—to answer the questions below. We did the first one for you.

Lionfish are native to which oceans? Where can they also be found now?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Beautiful Creatures.”

Answer: Lionfish are native to the Pacific and Indian oceans. Now they can also be found in the Atlantic Ocean.

Lionfish are native to which oceans? Where can they also be found now?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Beautiful Creatures.”

Answer: Lionfish are native to the Pacific and Indian oceans. Now they can also be found in the Atlantic Ocean.

Lionfish are native to which oceans? Where can they also be found now?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Beautiful Creatures.”

Answer: Lionfish are native to the Pacific and Indian oceans. Now they can also be found in the Atlantic Ocean.

What do lionfish eat? Why is this a problem? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Total Disaster.”

What do lionfish eat? Why is this a problem? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Total Disaster.”

What do lionfish eat? Why is this a problem? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Total Disaster.”

Why are coral reefs important? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Coral Reefs.”

Why are coral reefs important? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Coral Reefs.”

Why are coral reefs important? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Coral Reefs.”

How are lionfish affecting coral reefs?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Coral Reefs.”

How are lionfish affecting coral reefs?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Coral Reefs.”

How are lionfish affecting coral reefs?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Coral Reefs.”

Think About It! What do your answers tell you about how lionfish are affecting our oceans?

Think About It! What do your answers tell you about how lionfish are affecting our oceans?

Think About It! What do your answers tell you about how lionfish are affecting our oceans?

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