Wildlife agencies have learned firsthand that the only way to tackle lionfish populations is by spearing them. (The exotic, maroon-striped creatures don’t go to lures and are tough to catch in nets.) The species isn’t too wary of humans, Benkwitt says, so folks can make a sport out of hunting them in close range. In fact, the Florida state government has an annual competition for residents to go out and capture lionfish. Those lucky enough to wrangle the biggest or smallest specimen land a prize of $2,000.
“There’s a great community of people beyond just what we’ve done that has really taken it to heart,” says Amanda Nalley, a spokesperson with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. But some members of the species can live at depths of up to 1,000 feet, making them more inaccessible.
Florida’s answer to this dilemma? A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that uses a harpoon gun to exterminate its ruffly target. The “reef sweeper” is designed to snag lionfish lurking well below the water’s surface. On land, a trained employee uses a joystick to home in on the target, almost like in a video game.
“It seems kind of crazy to send a robot out,” Benkwitt says. “But it does solve some of the problems of the fact that there’s a lot of big lionfish that we can’t get to otherwise.”
Right now Florida is testing one reef sweeper prototype with a kill capacity of 150 fish per trip. But Gavin Hunter of Atlantic Lionshare, which collaborated with the state to develop this technology, says that the company is working on rolling out a sleeker, more advanced prototype this summer. While the new model will only hold 70 to 100 carcasses, its spear can reload every 10 seconds, cutting down the time it takes to deploy the machine. Ultimately, Hunter says the goal is to have each ROV bag 1,000 lionfish a day.
The robots will cost close to $300,000 a pop, so they might not be the cheapest solution to a wide and growing problem. Florida is already facing a scourge of unique environmental pests, between the Burmese pythons swallowing up the Everglades and the Kudzu vines draping many swamplands. Lionfish only add to the crisis: They outcompete local species like snapper for crustacean prey. “They are doing really well there at the expense of the native fish populations,” says Benkwitt. One report shows that the presence of a single lionfish can drive down the diversity of a coral reef community by 79 percent.If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em.
On the mend, the Wombat has Rule 5 Sunday: Ayako Kawasumi out by its nominal due date.