DESTIN, Fla. (CBS4) – South Florida’s lionfish invasion has spread to the Gulf waters off Florida’s Panhandle.

Lionfish are native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, but have formed growing populations off the southeastern U.S., Bahamas and the Caribbean. They’re wreaking ecological chaos because they eat important indigenous fish.

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The invasive species, which lacks natural predators, was first discovered off the coast of Dania Beach in 1985 and began to appear in northwest Florida about a year ago.

No one knows how the lionfish got here. There are a number of theories ranging to an aquarium that exploded during a hurricane to a luxurious aquatic themed hotel that accidentally leaked lionfish eggs into the Caribbean.

With no enemies and abundant prey, as well as rapid reproductive abilities, lionfish have spread throughout the region.

A United States Geological Survey map dating back to 2000 shows the lionfish beginning to appear along the Eastern seaboard. By 2009, the entire Caribbean and Florida Keys became saturated. Lionfish can now be found as far west as Louisiana and as far south as Venezuela.

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Scientists worry they will disrupt the balance of the marine ecosystem. The growing number of lionfish has impacted the populations of indigenous fish, because they eat important juvenile reef species such as grouper and snapper.

There is an effort to eradicate lionfish by catching and eating them. Lionfish are actually delicious.

Population control is something officials in the Florida Keys have been doing. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Reef Environmental Foundation have held several lionfish derbies where divers catch hundreds of lionfish in the waters off the Keys, while wearing puncture-resistant gloves to protect them from the lionfish’s venomous spines.

The mane-like assemblage of spines that give the fish its lion-like appearance are tipped in poison that can cause severe pain, swelling, nausea, headaches and convulsions. However, the fish can be safely handled once the spines have been removed and many people fillet lionfish and cook them up just like any other fish.

The Key Largo based Reef Environmental Education Foundation has even published “The Lionfish Cookbook” which has 45 recipes for the mild flavored fish plus tips on how to handle them without getting injured from their venomous spines.

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Proceeds from the sale of the book go to support REEF’s marine conservation and lionfish research activities.