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This short video shows rapid response divers gearing up to catch the first reported lionfish in the Florida Keys, and subsequent dissection of the fish.
Dissection is critical to help scientists learn gender, sexual maturity, and what the fish is eating. This information helps researchers better understand the potential threat that lionfish pose to key reef and commercial fish species. Learning more about the habits and preferences of lionfish in non-native waters also helps experts determine where to look for these invasive fish.
Scientists are actively studying these fish. That's why trained rapid response teams are capturing them and not simply killing them in the water or encouraging an "open season" for spearfishermen.
On January 7, rapid responders removed the first reported invasive lionfish from the waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary within 24 hours of notification.
This marks the first arrival of lionfish into the Florida Keys since the species became established in U.S. waters in 2000.
The responders—staff from Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), and a local dive operator—removed the juvenile lionfish from Benwood Ledge off Key Largo, Florida.
The removal was a test of a new early detection and rapid response program initiated in South Florida by the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS), Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, REEF, and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Lionfish, a native of the Indian and Pacific oceans, are now considered established in the Atlantic Ocean. First discovered off the coast of North Carolina in 2000 by NCCOS, they are believed to have been present off the east coast of Florida since the mid 1980s. Since lionfish are popular in the aquarium trade, it is likely the fish were introduced to Atlantic waters by amateur aquarists no longer wishing to keep the fish.
NOAA researchers have determined that lionfish reach sexual maturity within two years and spawn multiple times during the spawning season. Each spawn can produce up to 30,000 eggs.
Lionfish have taken hold along the southeast U.S. coast, placing divers and fishermen at risk from their painful, venomous sting. Native to the IndoPacific, these fish are voracious eaters with very few predators in Atlantic waters. Experts are carefully studying these invaders to better understand the role their role in, and potential threat to, Atlantic Ocean ecosystems.
Lionfish are believed to spend the winter from North Carolina to the Bahamas, with juveniles found as far north as Rhode Island during summer months where the potential for successful survival during the winter months is not possible due to cold water temperatures.
Unfortunately, NOAA researchers have concluded that non-native lionfish populations will continue to grow and cannot be eliminated using conventional methods. Marine invaders are nearly impossible to eradicate once established.
The cost and effort to dispatch trained divers—the only effective elimination method currently known to eradicate invasive lionfish —would be impractical, partly due to the expansive deepwater reef habitats of the Southeast coast of the United States and Bahamas, an area encompassing more than 62,000 square miles.
How lionfish will affect native fish populations and commercial fishing industries has yet to be determined. What is known is that non-native species can dramatically affect native ecosystems and local fishing economies.