Audiences around the world were riveted by the release of Deepwater Horizon. In the film, Mark Wahlberg plays an oil rig worker who was on the Deepwater Horizon rig the day it exploded and set off the worst man-made environmental disaster in American history. For many, the movie was a painful reminder of the spill, which killed 11 men and ravaged America’s Gulf Coast.
Now, six years after the disaster, a more insidious threat looms in the Gulf — a swimming monster whose beauty belies its beastly appetite. To combat it, researchers are turning to an unlikely ally: underwater killer robots.
Lionfish, Beautiful Swimmers, Terrible Monsters
The lionfish, as this threat is known, is native to the Indo-Pacific, but has made itself at home from Rhode Island to Venezuela since being accidentally introduced to the Atlantic in the 1980s.
The fish’s absurd and beautiful plumage has made it a prized specimen in the aquarium trade, which experts believe is the likely source of the species’ introduction to the Atlantic.
Despite it’s beauty, the fish poses an existential threat to the ecosystems it has invaded.
Lionfish reproduce at an astonishing rate — with one female producing as many as two million eggs per year. They also have no natural predators in the Atlantic and are voracious eaters — preying on the young of important commercial species like grouper and snapper.
If unchecked, scientists warn the fish could create an environmental catastrophe every bit as dire as that caused by the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Eat ‘Em
To date, most efforts to eradicate lionfish have focused on building a culinary market for the fish.
Chefs throughout the United States and Caribbean have taken up the cause — turning predator to prey in the form of filets, ceviche and tacos. One Florida startup is even processing the fish into a dip.
Still, if all this well-intentioned effort is ever to make an impact, experts say we must find a way to introduce lionfish to the mass market. That won’t be possible until we find a more efficient way of harvesting the fish.
Currently, lionfish must be killed by individual divers using spear guns. The fish won’t take a hook, and efforts at trapping them have seen only limited success.
Seeing this, one group is banking on a new method to finally rein in the lionfish’s reign of terror: killer robots.
Killer Robots Aren’t Always Bad
Robots in Service of the Environment — or “RISE,” for short — is developing an underwater robot to systematically target and kill lionfish.
The nonprofit was started by iRobot CEO Colin Angle — who, surprisingly, isn’t the only person hoping to fight lionfish with robots — after witnessing the destruction caused by the fish on a diving trip in Bermuda.
Angle’s invention is, essentially, a remotely operated vehicle equipped with an electrocution device to “zap” the invaders into submission. RISE is also working on a spear-equipped model. The robots build on technology originally developed for their much more domestic cousin, Roomba, a robotic vacuum developed by iRobot several years ago.
Angle told CNN he hoped the modestly priced devices, once fully operational, could help shore up the supply chain for lionfish, grow the market for their meat, and, hopefully, help avoid further damage to the environment.
Alex Bogdanoff, a marine biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told CNN that regulators were also optimistic.
He acknowledged concerns about animal welfare, but said he saw no problem with aggressive eradication, as long as the methods used were humane.
“The ethical issue is around the importation, sale and transport of exotic species to areas they don’t belong,” Bogdanoff said.
Who knows? Maybe soon you’ll be able to host dinner parties serving lionfish harvested with your very own killer robot. In the meantime, you can always head over to Norman’s Lionfish and order some online.
Not as exciting, we know. Then again, saving the world can’t always feels like a “Terminator” film.