Carl Safina is founder of Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University and a MacArthur Fellow. His books include “A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout,” and “The View From Lazy Point; A Natural Year in an Unnatural World,” which won the 2012 Orion Award. His series “Saving the Ocean” will be premiering this fall on PBS television.
Mr. Safina also has a reputation as a super fisherman. In this, the fourth in a series of New York Times articles about the invasive lionfish, he writes about a fascinating new theory on how, or why, the lionfish invasion of the Atlantic and Caribbean has succeeded.
Over the course of the last week, our “Saving the Ocean” video crew touched shores and reefs of the Bahamas, Florida and Mexico. Each time we landed on the sea floor, we quickly found lionfish. How could they have spread in the Atlantic so quickly after being nonexistent here just 20 years ago?
Something that keeps them in check in their native Indian Ocean and west Pacific haunts is missing here. It’s often the case that invaders transported to new haunts quickly build to plague-like levels. But I have an additional thought in this case. Before widespread overfishing, Atlantic reefs held enormous numbers of fishes of dozens of species. They all managed to find enough food to support themselves. With so many fish depleted by our hooks, nets and traps, all the food that once made groupers, snappers, sea basses and others was available to go elsewhere.
Lionfish may be, in that sense, the incarnation of all the other fish we’ve already eaten. How they’re overdoing it just might reflect, at least in part, how we’ve overdone it.