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April 2002 Vol. 17, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Cancel That Trip to Fiji

from the April, 2002 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

You don’t have to travel to the Pacific any longer to see unique species. Divers have discovered the beautiful, yet toxic, red lionfish along Florida’s eastern coast and it doesn’t belong there. Marine researchers are wondering if the South Pacific imports will find their way down to the Suncoast. “I would be surprised if they are not here already,” said Mark Leiby, a research scientist with the Florida Marine Research Institute in St. Petersburg.

For the past two years, researchers have tracked reports of the fish in locations from Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina, to Key Biscayne, Florida, to the Caribbean. The slew of sightings, however, had produced neither fish nor photos until mid-January, when a fisherman near St. Augustine snagged a lionfish from among a group of four.

“ We were surprised,” Leiby said, “that they had become established as far north as they have, since their normal habitat is fairly warm water. The find showed the lionfish, endemic to South Pacific and Indian Ocean waters, can survive in relatively cool waters. And it showed they can survive in habitats far removed from coral reefs.” All of which leaves Leiby speculating that the lionfish, if not already cruising Suncoast waters, won’t take long to get here. “If there are any down in the Caribbean,” he said, “they will positively get into the Gulf. If the Keys are as far south as they are now, they will get here eventually. ”

Roberts said the recent reports don’t show the establishment of a thriving population. He believes the fish may have escaped tropical fish farms during Hurricane Andrew, or were released by aquarium owners. “They can make it a short time,” Roberts said, “but the twenty-year pattern, the longer term, limits their ability to survive.” Leiby, his colleague, offers a different, more chilling thought. “Unfortunately,” he said, “when something like that gets established, unless nature does something about it, they tend to stay.”

“If they are here, it’ll be very interesting,” said John Falcone, a diving instructor at Scuba Quest. “They hardly ever talk about venomous lionfish in their classes, but if they are here we’ll have to change that.”

From a report by Kevin O’Horan, The Bradenton Herald

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