There is a scene in The Spy Who Loved Me where James Bond is impersonating a marine biologist (with the fake name “Robert Sterling”!) in order to infiltrate the underwater lair of a sinister supervillain. Bond has brought all sorts of potentially dangerous luggage, and is dressed in high 70’s fashion…and also happens to be traveling with Barbara Bach, so the villain is a bit suspicious about this new scientist. “What fish is that?” he quizzes Bond, pointing out the huge undersea window at a magnificent fish covered in poisonous red spines.
Without hesitation, Bond correctly replies “Pterois Volitans” a red lionfish. It was a scene that delighted the 12-year old me, since I was a saltwater aquarium enthusiast and, like “Robert Sterling” I knew the Latin name for that fish too. It was hard not to imagine successfully infiltrating an underwater lair with a beautiful Soviet agent/Ringo Starr’s wife (although that never did end up happening to my 12 year old self). Also…what was this Indo-Pacific fish doing in Sardinia?
But The Spy Who Loved Me turned out to be ahead of its time (indeed, in retrospect, the supervillain’s plot to save the oceans from human destruction seems far-sighted too). Lionfish are clever and aggressive predators which hunt in groups (schools?, prides?, packs?). They are covered in poisonous spines which give pause even to human fishermen with our lines, hooks, poison, and spears. And the beautiful aggressive fish are taking over. Invasive lionfish escaped from home aquariums and became, uh, feral (is any of this language correct?) and they are now a huge problem in warm seas and oceans around the world. Lionfish rapidly eat through the delicate tropical fish which form the backbone of reef ecosystems and leave the habitats dead and dying (although climate-change, acidification, and overfishing are probably exacerbating their deadly impact). As the oceans warm, the fish (which are a sort of scorpionfish) are expanding their territory into what were once temperate oceans.
However, all is not hopeless. This article began with ridiculous James Bond stuff and then got serious, but now there is a potential solution to the lionfish problem taken directly from a Bond villain’s playbook. Concerned marine biologists have teamed up with engineers to build autonomous predatory underwater robots to rid the Caribbean of invasive lionfish. These creepy robots swim through the oceans until they finds a red lionfish. The death machine then sidles up around the invader and zaps it with a mighty jolt of electricity.
Lionfish are largely unafraid of predators (although some sharks, triggerfish are able to despine them and some groupers and sharks can apparently gulp them down). I wonder if they will wise up to sinister predatory robots that appear from nowhere. Will the robots curtail the problem, or will the lionfish adapt around tehm too? Or will none of this even happen? Keep your eyes peeled to find out the rest of this story as it evolves.