The Coastal Empire and Lowcountry are home to several wildlife sanctuaries, including one that’s sixty feet below the surface of the Atlantic. Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary hopes to do more than just tame the Lionfish, they hope to eradicate the invasive species off the twenty-two miles of reef, that is a federally protected habitat. This sanctuary lies about 62 feet below the surface, south of Tybee Island and due east of Sapelo Island. It’s home to more than 200 fish species and more than 500 invertebrates. One is the Lionfish, named for its mane-like fins. While it doesn’t roar, it’s making waves in reef communities in the Atlantic, including Gray’s Reef.

Sarah Fangman, the superintendent of Georgia’s only federally protected reef, says the first sighting here was a lone Lionfish just 6 years ago. “Lionfish are native to the South Pacific and Indian Oceans…not Georgia. They came here because it is believed that people who had them in their aquariums, released them into the ocean. They are really beautiful fish. They are really beautiful fish, but they don’t belong here,” Fangman said. She adds that their numbers have grown. The initial local sighting of the Lionfish in Georgia was in 2009. Just a few years later, more than two dozen were seen and more than two dozen were present a few years later. Fangman says the problem can only get worse. “There are no natural predators. These things can reproduce every 4 days. They grow very rapidly, as I said before, they eat everything they can, this could really disrupt the natural communities off our shores.”

It’s the Lionfish’s fins that keep it from becoming fish food in the ocean. Some of the fins are venomous, producing the kind of sting that keep other fish away. Fangman says even sharks have been documented releasing Lionfish after trying to take a bite. She says anglers should beware of those stingers too if they land a Lionfish. Fangman is encouraging catching them, but she urges fisherman not to release them back into our waters. “You have to be careful with how you handle them. You don’t want to touch those spines because it can really sting, but, if you just cut those off, then the fish is great eating.”

Fangman says she believes the Lionfish problem in the Coastal Georgia waters is something that we’re just going to have to live with, but one all-natural way to tackle this problem is by tapping into the power of our taste buds. Lionfish will be the featured dish as the Gray’s Reef Foundation presents “A Fishy Affair: Malicious but Delicious”, an informative and functional fundraising dinner. “There will be four chefs from the Savannah area preparing Lionfish, so people can try these fish and hopefully develop a taste for them, that’s one way we can perhaps address this problem, by eating them,” says Fangman.

Lionfish are expected to linger on the reef for some time. If they go unchecked, they could change our underwater eco-system forever. Fangman says this is not a case where environmentalists are crying wolf. “This is a real crisis for our oceans….it really is.” The fundraising Lionfish dinner is set for September 24, 2015 and it’s open to the public. Tickets go on sale later this month.

For more information, visit: http://graysreef.noaa.gov/welcome.html