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Making Waves: Episode 14 (Jan. 30, 2009)

... A new report looks at effects and solutions for sea-level rise on coastal areas.
...And the first reported invasive lionfish was captured in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Those stories are coming up today on Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

First off, let’s talk about sea-level. We’ve all heard the reports that sea-levels are rising. What scientists and other experts are trying to figure out now is how fast this is happening, and what effect this will have on our coasts and on our society.

Well, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in collaboration with NOAA and the U.S. Geological Survey, just released a report that sheds some new light on this. The report hones in on eight coastal states from New York to North Carolina and looks at the impacts of sea-level rise on the coast, coastal communities, and the habitats and species that depend on coastal areas.

Here’s what we know. There’s evidence that the rate of rise is accelerating.  And climate change is likely to speed up this rate during this and the next century. And this is going to mean increased flooding of low-lying areas. It’s also going to lead to greater impacts from coastal storms, eroding shorelines, and the conversion of wetlands to open water. As you can imagine, all of these things are expected to have a huge impact on coastal communities and habitats.

The report, called Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-level Rise: A Focus on the Mid-Atlantic Region, found that rising water levels are already negatively impacting coastal areas, and it should come as no surprise that these effects will increase as the rate of rise accelerates in the future. In fact, most coastal wetlands in the mid-Atlantic would be lost if sea level rises one meter in the next century.  Even a 50-centimeter rise would threaten most wetlands along the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay.

Not all of the news is bad. Some governmental and nongovernmental organizations are already planning and preparing for the future.  The report cites a number of possible responses to sea-level rise that we can take: Seawalls, bulkheads, and other shoreline armoring can be constructed. Buildings and land surfaces - even beaches and wetlands - can be elevated. Or we can allow shorelines to change naturally and just move manmade structures out of the way of the rising water.

The authors of the report also look at the impacts and implications that sea-level rise will have on society. They provide some food for thought about future decision-making, and look at opportunities and barriers we may face as we work to adapt to rising water levels. They also outline current coastal policy in the mid-Atlantic region and look at implications for other regions of the U.S.  Finally, the report looks ahead at ways that natural and social science research can contribute to better understanding, adapting, ad responding to the potential impacts of sea-level rise.

Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-level Rise is one of 21 climate change-related products being developed by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program. NOAA is one of many partners involved with this effort.

You can find a link to the full report and to the Climate Change Science Program on our website at

Now let’s talk about lionfish.

On January 7, rapid responders removed the first reported invasive lionfish from the waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. They caught the fish 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.

The responders were staff from Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (better know as REEF), and a local dive operator.

The removal tested a new lionfish early detection and rapid response program for South Florida initiated by the NOS National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, REEF, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

If you’ve never seen a lionfish, surf over to our Web site and take a look. They’re pretty crazy looking. They’re brightly colored, with vibrant red, oranges, and whites. They have long feathery fins, and pointed venomous spines.

They’re native to the Indo-Pacific - that’s a part of the ocean made up of the tropical Indian Ocean and the western and central Pacific. At least that’s where they’re supposed to be. At home in their native waters, local ecosystems have evolved and adapted along with these fish, so they fit right in with their environment.

Unfortunately, lionfish are now established in the waters of the Atlantic ocean, and they don’t belong there.  With no natural predators in Atlantic waters, they’re thriving. And this poses a huge risk to Atlantic creatures, habitats and commercial fisheries. The truth is, no one knows exactly what will happen.

That’s why NOAA and many other federal and nonprofit agencies are carefully studying the problem, and why so many groups on the lookout for lionfish invaders. It’s also why trained rapid response teams are capturing the fish for further study and not simply killing them in the water or encouraging an "open season" for fishermen.

Now let’s take a closer look at the lionfish problem in the Atlantic.
The invasive fish were discovered off the coast of North Carolina in 2000 by the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, and they are believed to have been present off the east coast of Florida since around the mid 1990s.

How did they get all the way to the Atlantic? The lionfish didn’t swim there. They were introduced by humans. Since lionfish are popular in the aquarium trade, it is likely the fish were introduced to Atlantic waters by people who dumped unwanted aquarium fish back into the ocean.

And they’re doing quite well in  their new Atlantic water homes. The fish are believed to spend the winter from North Carolina to the Bahamas, with juveniles found as far north as Rhode Island during summer months. They can’t survive in the cold waters north of the Carolinas over the winter. 

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.

Unfortunately, NOAA researchers now believe that non-native lionfish populations will continue to grow and simply can’t be eliminated using conventional methods. The truth is, marine invaders are nearly impossible to eradicate once established.

The only effective elimination method currently known to get rid of invasive lionfish is to dispatch trained divers. But the cost and effort of this makes it impractical. The main reason is that the expansive deepwater reef habitats of the Southeast coast of the U.S. and Bahamas is an area encompassing more than 62,000 square miles.

Once a lionfish is captured, it is typically dissected and studied to learn its gender, sexual maturity, and what it’s eating. This information helps researchers better understand the potential threat that lionfish could pose to key reef and commercial fish species in places like the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Learning more about the potential habitat preferences of lionfish in non-native waters may also help experts determine where to look for these invasive fish in the future.

So, with careful study, the hope is that we’ll eventually better understand the lionfish role in, and threat to, Atlantic Ocean ecosystems. And with rapid response plans in place, we can try to limit the spread of the fish in places like the Florida Keys. 

That’s all for this episode. If you have any questions about this week’s podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean, send us an email at

Let’s bring in the ocean....

This is Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service. See you next week.