Although lionfish are not aggressive towards humans, their sting is very painful

A luridly striped fish with poisonous spikes has invaded the Caribbean where it is quickly spreading - and endangering the beautiful environment so beloved of tourists.

The red lionfish is a native of the Indian and Pacific ocean. But it started appearing in the Caribbean 16 years ago after a tropical storm smashed a private aquarium near Miami.

Now it is colonising the entire sea, feasting on native species of fish and crustaceans and delivering painful stings to divers. A single animal was seen to eat 20 smaller fish in just half an hour.

Until recently, the lionfish invasion was mostly concentrated on the Bahamas, where it infested beaches, reefs and mangrove thickets where baby fish grow. In the past year, its numbers increased tenfold in some parts of the archipelago

More worryingly, it is now being found on the coasts of Cuba, Hispaniola, the Cayman Islands and Florida. Islands with big diving and fish-farming industries are running scared.

"This may very well become the most devastating marine invasion in history," said Mark Hixon, an Oregan State University expert interviewed by Associated Press. "There is probably no way to stop the invasion completely."

In the north Caribbean, some governments are urging fishermen to destroy the fish.

Although lionfish are not aggressive towards humans, their sting is very painful. Some fish have even been caught to eat - and they are described as tasting like halibuts.