Becky Fowler was shipwreck-diving 66 feet below the surface, exploring a watery paradise, when she came face to face with a 4-inch-long, zebra-striped Cujo of the deep.
Yes, the dreaded lionfish has made its way to the Florida Keys. Fowler's discovery, confirmed a few days later by divers who captured and dissected the creature, has sent shivers through the Keys' fishing and tourism industries.
Just as pythons have disturbed the natural ecosystem of the Everglades, the lionfish could someday become a scourge of the Keys. A Bluto Blutarsky of the water kingdom, it will eat anything it can cram into its mouth -- sea horses, crustaceans and all manner of native fish -- and is a breeding machine.
Also, it stings divers, painfully.
"We knew this 'perfect predator' was coming," said Lisa Mitchell, executive director of the Key Largo-based Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), which responded to Fowler's discovery. "We just didn't know when."
The lionfish is a native of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, but was introduced to Atlantic waters 16 years ago. Some blame the ballast of sea-going vessels. Others cite selfish aquarium owners, who dump the fish when they outgrow their tanks.
Regardless of the culprit, the lionfish has since caused ecological havoc on fragile Atlantic ecosystems already burdened by overfishing, pollution and global warming.
"It's another huge challenge for the tropical marine ecosystem, on par with habitat degradation and overfishing," said Dave Score, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. "Lionfish are altering the diversity of an area that has taken hundreds of thousands of years to adapt and evolve."
And, of course, with the Keys heavily dependent on tourism, diving and recreational and commercial fishing, it is an economic threat as well as an environmental one.
True, only one fish has been found thus far. But the plague of Everglades Burmese pythons likely began with a single snake. Then a second. Then, a bacchanal of breeding and -- voila -- snakes are devouring alligators whole.
"Lionfish are eating their way through the (Atlantic) reefs like a plague of locusts," said Mark Hixon, a coral reef ecology expert at Oregon State University. "This may well become the most devastating marine invasion in history."
Long before the South Carolina accountant made her discovery while diving the Benwood shipwreck off Key Largo's Atlantic Coast, the Keys had been bracing for this day. It had created an official response plan and held workshops to educate the public.
Now that the fish has arrived, Keys officials will be taking the matter "very seriously," said Scott Zimmerman, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association. The public is asked to report sightings to the REEF office at 305-852-0030.
The lionfish hardly looks like the menace it is. It grows to a maximum of 20 inches long. Because of its exotic features _ the zebra striping and a feathery mane of fins _ it is a favorite for aquarium keepers.
"Lionfish are the No. 2 aquarium fish in the U.S., behind clownfish," said Bruce Purdy, owner of Davie, Fla.-based Blackbeard's Cruises, which hosts Bahamas diving excursions.
But the beauty is a beast.
The first documented Atlantic sightings came days after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, when six lionfish were spotted in Biscayne Bay and traced to a private aquarium swept away from a Miami waterfront home.
It is believed that lionfish hitched a ride north on the Gulf Stream, up the East Coast, as far as Rhode Island. Other currents and eddies led the lionfish to Bermuda, then to the Bahamas and farther south to the Caribbean as well as Belize. The lionfish was "completing a loop" by reaching the Keys, said Lad Akins, REEF's director of special projects.
They are fearless fish, their bravado bolstered by the poison released by their sharp spines. Cold water appears to be their only real enemy. Otherwise, they thrive at depths ranging from a few inches to 500 feet.
The lionfish's coloring allows it to strike its prey from the protective camouflage of a coral reef.
Lionfish eat like no other fish in the Atlantic, using their fanned-out fins to block escape by prey. They devour commercial fish, such as grouper and snapper juveniles, as well as those species' food supplies.
Just how voracious are they?
In a 2008 University of Oregon State study, the first to quantify the severity of the situation, research teams observed one lionfish gorging on 20 small fish in less than 30 minutes.
Scientists fear the lionfish will kill off helpful species, such as algae-eating parrotfish, allowing seaweed to overtake reefs.
If the lionfish multiply, Mitchell of REEF offers one possible remedy: Fishermen could start to catch them for commercial sale.
"They are delicious," she said. "Kind of like hogfish, but not quite as mild."
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