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The Lionfish Invasion!

Run-ins with an Invader


A Chronicle of Lionfish Sightings in U.S. Waters


On August 1, 2002, a team of scientists exploring the ocean floor aboard the submersible Johnson-Sea-Link II happened across a strange fish that should not have been there. As pilot Dan Boggess “flew” the Johnson-Sea-Link II along Scamp Ridge off the South Carolina coast, scientists Scott Meister and Dan Russ videotaped their run-in with the invader!

Later, Scott Meister recalled the account of their strange discovery in his field journal:


2 August 2002 | Time: 8:30 PM
Research Vessel: R/V Seward Johnson
Location: South Atlantic Bight
Latitude: 32° N | Longitude: 79° 30’ W


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Watch videotape evidence that lionfish had probably begun multiplying in the Atlantic Ocean by 2002. The scientists in the submersible did a double-take as a lionfish, native to the Pacific Ocean, pops out from around the coral they were studying! Click here for further details.

We began our dive in the Johnson-Sea-Link II at about 4:30 pm. We'd been slowly hovering along the reef for a few hours when we came across a high rock ledge teeming with life. Schools of tomtate intermixed with vermilion snapper flashed above the feature, while small damselfish and wrasses darted in and out of the small holes in the reef.

Soft corals and sponges adorned much of the face of the wall, and a spiny lobster could be seen clinging upside down to a small overhang. Having been down on the reef for about two hours already, my eyes had become accustomed to the standard shapes and sizes of the species we'd seen throughout the dive.

We were on the prowl for a sponge sample to bring to the surface, when I spotted what I first believed to be an unusual coral outcrop of some type. Long, slender spikes peeked out from behind a small rock mound, and my interest was immediately piqued.

This lionfish was sighted off the coast of North Carolina in August 2002 during a submersible dive in water more than 180 ft deep

This lionfish was sighted off the coast of North Carolina in August 2002 during a submersible dive in water more than 180 ft deep. Although the scientists were excited about their exotic find, they were not pleased to see the lionfish in U.S. waters.

As we came closer and checked out the spines, an odd-looking fish rose above the mound and turned to see what all the commotion was about. My heart jumped into my throat as I realized it was a lionfish! Everything about this fish seemed out of place when compared to the species we had observed so far. Long, sharp spines ran up its back, nearly twice the height of its body. Its pectoral fins resembled wings, which were also lined with sharp, slender spines. Its color contrasted strongly with the surrounding reef, with a zebra-like pattern of brown-and-white vertical bars along its body and dark circles imprinted on a translucent tail. This invader didn't dive for cover as many other fish its size did, but instead seemed to assume a defensive posture and moved toward us. Maybe their poisonous spines present a formidable defense against potential predators, but they are no match for a 26,000-lb submersible!

This dive was an amazing opportunity. Unfortunately, we sighted the lionfish late in the dive, and the sub was low on battery power. This gave us only a few minutes to try to capture this noteworthy specimen. During a short and heated pursuit, we spotted a second lionfish. We attempted to capture both fish without success. Before we knew it, time was up, and we had to surface and leave the lionfish behind. Although we did not return to the surface with a physical specimen, we did return with proof of our unlikely encounter on videotape.

On the following day, members of the science team made another submersible dive on a similar reef approximately six miles away from our lionfish sightings. This time, sub pilot Craig Caddigan maneuvered the sub through the reef, while scientists Josh Loefer of SCDNR and Jeremy Potter of NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration observed the surroundings.

lionfish at a depth of about 240 ft over the Outer Shelf Reefs

This 2002 lionfish sighting over the Outer Shelf Reefs off Cape Fear, North Carolina, was noteworthy because lionfish are not known to go this deep (~240 ft) in their native Pacific habitats. Click on image for larger view and further deails.

Josh, seated in the front of the sub with Craig, had high hopes we would capture a live lionfish. We didn't have to wait long. Only 30 minutes into the dive, we sighted another lionfish. We had plenty of battery power this time, so the lionfish was as good as ours.

Or was it? The area was extremely rocky and provided many hiding places for our quarry. Nevertheless, the chase was on. At times, it appeared as though the lionfish was toying with us. It would allow the sub’s suction nozzle to come within inches of its body, so close that we could see its fins ripple in the current created by the suction pump. Then it would dart away at the last moment and find cover. Several times we relocated the lionfish, flushed it from its hiding place and tried again to capture it. After a 30-minute chase in this fashion, the lionfish found a large rock overhang about 4 ft deep. It darted inside this well protected area, placing itself well out of reach of the submersible. Lionfish: 2; scientists: 0.

With our quarry out of reach, we reluctantly moved on and continued our scheduled dive activities. By the end of the dive we had spotted two more lionfish, but we had no time to pursue them. This brought the total number of lionfish sightings to five. Though it was exciting to see this many lionfish in such a short amount of time, these sightings suggest that they have established a foothold in this non-native environment
, and may be actively reproducing in U.S. waters off North Carolina.



Video Transcript

Scientist #1: We have a lionfish here at a depth of 180 feet.

Scientist #2: Let’s stop and focus on that and record that right there. I broke transect for that, Dan, because it's a lionfish. Ah, it's really cool. Good eye there sub captain. It’s beautiful. People have been letting those go out of their aquariums see.

Scientist #1: Ah!

Scientist #2: It’s a Pacific fish.

Scientist #1: Yea.

Scientist #2: All in the papers. Divers have been spotting them.

Scientist #1: Very nice.





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