One Tasty Predator

Nick Lucey

Photography by William Torrillo

 

Sharks. Jellyfish. Stingrays. Getting caught with a beer bottle by the Tybee beach patrol. These are just a few of the dangers that many fear when going to the beach in Savannah. But keep in mind that the whole shark thing is way overblown—you're infinitesimally more likely to be involved in an accident with the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile driving to the beach than you are to be attacked by a shark once you get there.

Jellyfish (administer Windex, not pee) and stingrays (everyday I'm shufflin') can pose threats, too, but are still relatively rare. So no doubt I won’t be making any friends when I tell you that you've got one more thing to worry about in Georgia's murky waters: Pterois, or lionfish. If you've ever visited an aquarium, you'll immediately recognize this ornate, flamboyant fish with red, white and black bands, looking as if it's dressed for Rio’s carnival. They range in size from 6 to 42 centimeters, with adults averaging around 38 centimeters and weighing 480 grams (that’s nearly 17 ounces).

Just 10 or 15 years ago, you'd have to travel several thousands of miles to the Pacific and Indian Oceans to see them. But you needn't worry about stepping on one while wading into the surf—they live farther offshore, and the problem is bigger than that. They've invaded the waters off the southeastern United States and the entire Caribbean, and are disrupting the delicate fabric that is our marine environment. They've got no natural predators and specialize in hunting and decimating smaller species. Those beautiful feather-like appendages that make them so recognizable are actually venomous spines that can not only unleash a painful wrath on quarry, but also make the lionfish unsavory prey to larger fish that would otherwise keep these harmful populations in check. Lionfish stings are rarely fatal to people, but symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, convulsions and extreme pain, which can sometimes cause discomfort over several days.

So how did these fish arrive at our shores? It's widely believed that lionfish were unintentionally introduced into the Atlantic when Hurricane Andrew demolished an aquarium in South Florida in 1992. The fish can now be found as far north as Cape Hatteras, all along the Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts, throughout almost the entire Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, and all the way south to Barbados.