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Chefs, robotics engineers, sailboat racers team up to tackle lionfish problem

Lionfish can eat as many as 20 fish in a half-hour and lay 30,000 eggs every three days.

By Brooks Hays
Chefs, robotics engineers, sailboat racers team up to tackle lionfish problem
An illustration shows the lionfish-hunting robot honing in on the invasive species. Photo by RSE

May 9 (UPI) -- Lionfish populations are rapidly expanding along the East Coast of the United States and in the Caribbean, decimating native species and depleting the ecological diversity surrounding already vulnerable coral reefs.

A variety of groups are working on curbing the spread of the invasive species, but a pair of conservation teams are taking a unique problem-solving approach -- an approach that involves robots, sailboats and island chefs.

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"We're bringing in fisheries, technologies, communities, environmental groups and sport together," said Todd McGuire, program director of 11th Hour Racing, a nonprofit working with sailing teams and racers to tackle environmental problems.

Currently, 11th Hour Racing is focused on raising awareness about the environmental dangers posed by lionfish, a voracious, fast-breeding invasive species. They're also working on solutions to the problem, like creating a sustainable market demand for the fish.

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Last month, McGuire and his partners hosted a lionfish cook-off in Bermuda as part of the festivities leading up to this year's America's Cup, the famed sailing yacht match race series.

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Celebrity chefs -- one representing each of the six America's Cup teams -- prepared lionfish dishes for competition. Skippers of the racing catamarans served as judges.

The event incorporated a number of local environmental organizations and restaurants, as well as the culinary school at Bermuda College.

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"Each the celebrity chefs had culinary students work with them," McGuire said.

The lionfish were sourced using an underwater robot designed to catch the invasive predator. April's "Eat Lionfish Chefs Throwdown" event featured the first live demonstration of the fish-catching submersible.

"Bermuda is the first time it's all come together in the water and actually hunted lionfish," said John Rizzi, executive director of Robots in Service of the Environment, or RSE.

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While 11th Hour Racing connects sailors with marine conservation, RSE offers engineers a chance to tackle environmental problems. RSE has no payroll and its robot was designed and built by a team of volunteers.

"The first meetings were in someone's backyard, the prototypes were built in my garage and tested in my swimming pool," Rizzi said.

The robot's relatively simple design allowed Rizzi and his partners to go from drawings to a working model in less than a year.

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"It's basically just a big tube with thrusters mounted on it to drive it," he said.

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A pair of electrical circuitboards are mounted atop the tube. A brief shock stuns the fish before it's vacuumed into the cylinder and stored. The robot is outfitted with a camera and is tethered to a computer system on a boat floating above. It's manipulated by a remote control.

"You operate exactly like a Playstation," Rizzi said, "except instead of hunting aliens on some other planet, you're taking bad fish out of the ocean."

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With the help of conservation groups like 11th Hour Racing, Rizzi and RSE hope demand for the invasive fish will inspire fishermen to purchase one of their robot models in the future. Right now there's only a single model, but RSE plans to make ten more in the coming six to nine months and ultimately sell the device for less than $1,000.

Lionfish can eat as many as 20 fish in a half-hour and lay 30,000 eggs every three days. And they can't be caught using traditional fishing methods, which is why Rizzi says RSE's robot is so essential.

Currently, divers must spear or grab lionfish one by one, but the robot can dive deeper to hunt lionfish humans can't access.

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Though such a development may be a ways off, Rizzi says it's possible the robot could one day sport visual recognition software, allowing it to hunt lionfish autonomously.

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