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September 2007    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 33, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Pacific Lionfish Now Common in Caribbean

tax-deductible trips research their impact

from the September, 2007 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

There is hardly a fish more graceful than the beautiful lion fish, found throughout the South Pacific and Indonesia. It has feathery fins, segmented into many soft and willowy rays, that flow like curtains in a breeze. Although it’s a treat to see one, they have become an unwanted addition to the Atlantic and Caribbean as an invasive species whose impact is unknown, but surely unwanted. Besides being a predator unrecognizable to Caribbean reef fishes who haven’t learned to keep their distance, their rays are poisonous, protecting them against other predators, humans included.

They’ve been reported as far east as Bermuda and as far north as Long Island, since the first sighting in August 2002 by local divers off the North Carolina Coast. Two years later, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expedition collected 155 lionfish in the same area, showing that they are spawning and spreading.

NOAA thinks the invasion started in 1992 when six lionfish were accidentally released in Biscayne Bay, Florida, when a beachside aquarium broke open during Hurricane Andrew. Lad Akins, director of special projects for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), says more may have been intentionally released by aquarium tank owners. “Lionfish are common aquarium fish but when they got too big for their tanks or started eating other fish, people may have just dumped them out of the tank and into the ocean.”

Undercurrent subscribers have reported them in many places. Diving in February near Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos, Richard Sziede (Reston, VA) saw a lionfish and sent his footage to NOAA, which replied that Provo was the farthest west lionfish have been sighted so date. Paul Cahase saw three while on a Blackbeard’s Cruise in Bimini, while Steven Rosenfeld (Westlake Village, CA) and Garry Gough (West Paterson, NJ) spotted them off the North Carolina coast.

Scientists don’t know much about the ecological impact of lionfish in the Atlantic and Caribbean but they are major predators in their native reef environments and they have no natural enemies in these waters. As they spread, more encounters between people and lionfish will probably lead to more stings. NOAA and REEF say it’s unlikely they’ll ever be eradicated from North American waters, so it’s more barbaric than useful to kill them. “We’ve seen them in every type of habitat, from mangroves and shallow coral reefs to as deep as 380 feet,” says Akins. “They’re like cockroaches - - they eat a lot and spawn a lot, so they thrive easily.”

To track their spread, REEF asks divers to report lionfish sightings on its Web site. It is also hosting dive expeditions for volunteer sport divers to help find lionfish and learn about invasive species’ impact on reefs. Undercurrent subscriber Dan McGrory (Holbrook, NY) went on the April expedition, held on Blackbeard’s Cruises boats Morningstar and Pirates’ Lady, to see how far lionfish had spread into the Bahamas. “In a week’s time, REEF staff and 15 volunteers collected more than 30 lionfish, ranging in size from one to eight inches, which shows they’re reproducing,” he reports. “We found lionfish on 90 percent of our dive sites.” Divers were given buoys to deploy when they spotted one, and more intrepid divers helped with collecting them. On the boat, lionfish were euthanized with a mix of clove oil and alcohol, then dissected to reveal their stomach contents. Meals included juvenile yellow and blue head wrasse, shrimp, crabs, Spanish hogfish, gobies and other fish. They were then put in ziplock bags and frozen for shipping to NOAA researchers in North Carolina.

The next REEF expedition is October 20 to 26 in Eleuthera aboard the Cat Ppalu, and will focus on the lionfish’s feeding impacts, short- and long-term routines, recent spawning activity and impact to reefs’ cleaning stations. The cost is $1,395, plus a $55 port tax and $10 park fee. Next is a trip with Stuart’s Cove Dive Bahamas, November 11 to 17, at the reefs and walls on the southwest end of New Providence; the cost is $998. All expenses you incur on a trip with a bona fide 501 (c)3 nonprofit organization doing legitimate research are tax deductible, airfare included, but verify it with your own accountant. More trips are planned. For more information, contact Akins, who will be supervising the trips, at

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