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Red Lionfish (Pterois volitans) have been in US waters since the 1980's but the first documented sighting in the Bahamas was by the crew of our charter sailboat, Cat Ppalu, in November of 2004. NOAA has been researching red lionfish off the coast of North Carolina for several years. In 2006, REEF & Blackbeard's Cruises started assisting NOAA in collecting and studying red lionfish in the Bahamas. As of January, 2008 we have completed 10 trips on the Blackbeard's Cruises sailboats, Cat Ppalu & our catamaran Aqua Cat for the purpose of collecting & dissecting 150 fish. Also Stuart Cove hosted two collection weeks in Nassau and a number of collections trips were conducted in the Freeport area. A total of 777 lionfish were collected. Among the things we have learned:

1) They don't seem to have many or any predators. We know nurse & reef sharks & moray eels won't go near live lionfish. Several have been found in the stomachs of grouper caught in fish traps, but it isn't known whether they will eat them in the wild. Currently the only report of one being eaten in the wild was by a gray triggerfish.
2) They don't move much, tending to remain in the same spot. The only reasons they seem to move is to find protection or food. Once those are found, they stay there until the food is gone.
3) They appear to feed mainly from dusk to dawn.
4) They do feed upon fish cleaners like juvenile bluehead wrasse.
5) They are found in most or all habitats. We have found them in shallow & deep reefs, shallow & deep ledges, blue holes, mangroves, near docks, wrecks and off beaches.
6) The lionfish we have in the Bahamas are from the same sub-species of Pterois volitans as the fish in North Carolina.
7) They appear to breed 12 months a year, while the fish in North Carolina only breed 3 months a year.
8) Their numbers have been growing rapidly. In Blackbeard's Cruises & REEF's collection trips to the Berries in April, lionfish were found on all sights surveyed. Of the fish collected during those trips most had just reached breeding size. The following is the growth as measured by REEF Bahamas fish surveys.
9) Lionfish are growing much faster and getting much bigger than they do in their native Pacific waters.
10) Juvenile fish don't recognize them as predators and in fact tend to hide around them. This is probably because they look similar to clumps of algae or anemones that they normally hide around.
11) As of March, 2009 lionfish have spread to Cuba, Jamaica, Cayman, Central America (Belize), the leeward islands all the way to St Croix.

2003none seen   
20041 of 1,136.8%None of the surveys had more than 1
200511 of 1,0941.2%None of the surveys had more than 1
200616 of 8701.8%20% of surveys had more than 1
200768 of 35619.1%Most surveys had more than 1 with several having more then 10. (Through 6/12/07)
2008154 of 66323.2%Again most surveys had more than 1
200932 of 11128.8%through Feb, 2009.


Poison-spined fish from Asia have invaded U.S. waters
Janet Raloff

With striking red, black, and white stripes decorating its body, fins, and some dozen spines along its head, back, and sides, the red lionfish is at once beautiful and frightening. The football-shaped fish can grow up to 18 inches long and is poisonous to the touch. At smaller sizes, this subtropical fish from Asia is extremely popular for hobbyists with saltwater aquariums, but the red lionfish is a major worry to government biologists charged with protecting native species in the wild.

In the past decade or so, the lionfish has increasingly shown up along the U.S. coast from North Carolina to Florida, where it could spell big trouble for the domestic fish whose ranges it's invading. There are several scenarios by which this fish could have entered the coastal waters. Many biologists point to Hurricane Andrew in 1992 as the agent behind the first release. Its destruction included an aquarium that had housed six red lionfish in a Miami home on Biscayne Bay. Several of the vividly striped survivors were spotted in the bay shortly thereafter.

Red lionfish were swimming freely along the U.S. coast long before that, says Walter R. Courtenay, a fisheries biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Gainesville, Fla. He proposes as the earliest North American sighting a red lionfish that an oceanographer identified during the mid-1980s after it was caught from a pier in Lake Worth, Fla.

There could have been several lionfish releases, at least some of them deliberate, biologists now suspect. For instance, hobbyists might have released pet lionfish that had outgrown their aquariums. Another possibility is that dive-boat operators may have released red lionfish, perhaps purchased at a pet store, to establish a population for their customers to observe. Courtenay notes that several excursion operators brag that they can take tourists to see red lionfish, a species that scientists can have trouble locating in the sea.

The biologists generally rule out ships' ballast tanks, which have carried many other species that became invaders once they were released far from their native waters. Few tankers and freighters come to the southeastern United States from the red lionfish's native range in the South Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Red Sea. Regardless of when or how red lionfish got their start in the Western Hemisphere, the fish have become well established. New research indicates that they're breeding, growing faster than they do in their home range, and proving unappetizing to would-be predators. The latest reports indicate that the species has now spread to Bermuda and the Bahamas.

Ever bold
Few know the red lionfish (Pterois volitans) as well as Lev Fishelson does. For more than 40 years, this marine biologist at Tel Aviv University in Israel has studied the species in the Red Sea, the westernmost portion of its native range. What have always struck him about the fish are its grace and "fearlessness."

Unlike most reef denizens, red lionfish will approach divers rather than veer away. Fishelson warns that the animal will sometimes launch itself into a person. If the needlelike tip of a spine breaks the diver's skin, he or she will experience intense pain and swelling at the wound site and usually end up in the hospital, says Fishelson. A member of the scorpionfish family, this lionfish has a reservoir of venom at the base of each of its spines. If the spine is pushed inward, the pressure on the venom gland triggers toxin to shoot up the hollow spine to its tip, explains reef biologist H. Scott Meister of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources in Charleston. Because the process is entirely mechanical, he adds, handling even a dead red lionfish can release its venom. While keeping a polite distance, Fishelson has had the rare privilege of witnessing the red lionfish's courtship. Initially, he reports, the normally solitary animals begin collecting into groups of more than a dozen. For 3 to 4 days, males will posture before prospective mates. This entails darting forward and thrusting spines atop its head at a rival.

When adequately impressed, a female will join her suitor and commence a spawning dance. Face-to-face, they'll circle just above the seafloor. Eventually, the couple will slowly ascend the water column, continuing its waltz. Just before reaching the surface, the female will expel a mucus ball, containing thousands of eggs, which floats to the surface. Her companion, Fishelson says, responds by turning belly up and releasing a cloud of sperm into the egg ball.

Then, as if the music were over, the dancers suddenly go their separate ways. Within a day, at least in the Red Sea, Fishelson says, those eggs will have hatched into larvae and migrated to hideouts among the algae growing on the seafloor. Three months later, they are miniature versions of the parents.

Although previously spotted in Florida, red lionfish hadn't been sighted off North Carolina until 6 years ago. Just 2 years later, in 2004, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researchers in North Carolina reported the first evidence that the species was reproducing along the U.S. coastline. That finding all but ruled out the prospect of eliminating the immigrants, the scientists say.

NOAA has since launched a program aimed at evaluating whether the invader poses any risk to commercially important, native western-Atlantic fish. Little research had been published on the red lionfish, so the biologists had to first describe the fish's lifecycle, diet, and likely predators. Last May, the researchers presented many of their preliminary findings at the International Conference on Aquatic Invasive Species in Key Biscayne, Fla.

"The interesting thing about invasive species is that it's not uncommon for them to actually get bigger or do better in a new habitat" than in their native range, says Paula Whitfield of NOAA's lab in Beaufort, N.C. From all accounts, individual red lionfish off the Carolinas are growing much faster than native fish do. The phenomenon may reflect more food for the fish, fewer predators, or accommodations nicer than home in other ways.

Although baby red lionfish have been seen in late summer or fall as far north as Long Island, N.Y., Whitfield says that these fish can't survive the winter there. In her lab, the species dies when the water temperature drops below 10°C (50°F).

However, 20 miles east of Cape Hatteras, N.C., at depths of 100 to 160 feet, temperatures would remain hospitable to red lionfish year round. Sampling 27 sites there during a recent scouting expedition, her group found red lionfish at every location except one. The team is now examining the 150 specimens that it collected. Jennifer Potts, also of NOAA's Beaufort lab, is figuring out how old individual fish are. She has examined calcium deposits, called otoliths, in their ears. The deposits add layers, like tree rings, as a fish ages. "What I've found-and this is very preliminary-is that my oldest fish appears to be 7 years old," she says. That fish is 17 inches long.

Other fish that she estimates at 2 years old are already 10 inches long, she adds. Examinations of gonads from wild fish have indicated that individuals of this species are sexually mature by the time they're 7 or 8 inches long. Indeed, among the 130 red lionfish collected last month during a 9-day cruise off the Carolinas, James A. Morris Jr. of NOAA's Beaufort lab found indications that yearling females were already spawning.

A mature female may release a pair of egg balls about five times each month "from spring to fall off of North Carolina, and possibly year-round off of Florida," notes Morris.

Red lionfish could have a selective advantage over native fish along U.S. reefs. Not only would the lionfish quickly become too big for many medium-size fish to eat but they would also start preying at a young age on those fish, Potts says.

Morris finds that native fish don't seem much interested in eating even tiny red lionfish. This past June, for instance, he offered a 2-inch-long red lionfish and a similar-size native reef fish to 1-foot-long black sea bass. In 20 trials, the bass ate every native fish but, in 16 of those tests, it shunned young red lionfish. Sometimes, a bass took a red lionfish into its mouth, but it usually spit out the small fish.

What's for dinner?
In the waters off South Carolina 4 years ago, biologists noticed lionfish specimens around 7 inches long, says David M. Wyanski of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Now, red lionfish encountered there can be 17 inches long and weigh 3 pounds.

What are they eating to grow so robustly? Roldan C. Muñoz at NOAA's Beaufort facility has examined the mouth and stomach contents of 88 red lionfish captured in the Atlantic Ocean. Muñoz found that these lionfish had been eating the occasional sea urchin, brittle star, crab, shrimp, and mollusk. However, 97 percent of the lionfish diet had been other fish, especially small sea bass and parrotfish.

Although Muñoz didn't find evidence that lionfish were dining on groupers or snappers, which like bass are commercially important fish, the invaders may still threaten those populations. Native groupers off the Carolinas eat black sea bass and parrotfish, Muñoz notes, as the red lionfish do.

Meanwhile, red lionfish may soon end up on some people's dinner plates. Wyanski points out that this year those fish were caught in such quantity that boat operators along the Carolinas started including them in boxes of "mixed catch" sold skinned and sometimes filleted to consumers at a discounted price. The toxin from red lionfish poison glands doesn't taint the meat, he says.

What now?
Recently, NOAA scientists began genetic studies of red lionfish to determine how many separate releases in the Atlantic have occurred. Whitfield says that her team is finding evidence of a "severe genetic bottleneck," suggesting that perhaps no more than three pregnant females launched the expanding western-Atlantic red lionfish population. The data point out, says Whitfield, how large an impact the introduction of even a few aliens can have. The evidence is strong that the red lionfish and similar invaders came from the aquarium trade, says Brice X. Semmens of the University of Washington in Seattle. He and his colleagues found that the 16 nonnative fish-including red lionfish-most often seen by divers in the Atlantic Ocean off Florida are all common saltwater-aquarium species that probably moved into that state for the hobbyist trade. There's little ship traffic between the southeastern United States and the native waters of any of those species.

Additional data also point to the aquarium industry as the culprit. In the first 6 months of 2003, for instance, more than 7,500 red lionfish were imported into Tampa, according to Whitfield and a team of scientists at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. They reported in the March Biological Conservation that this species is among the top 10 saltwater fish, in terms of profitability, to the U.S. aquarium industry. Three years ago, Whitfield and Jonathan A. Hare, also of NOAA, prepared a report on red lionfish for their agency. In it, they argued that the aquarium industry "should be urged or required to distribute information warning against releasing live fish from aquariums." Government agencies might also consider banning the importation of live, nonnative fish-something that Bermuda now does.

In the meantime, Meister jokingly suggests a transitional strategy: recruiting coastal chefs to develop recipes for red lionfish. Everyone knows that "as soon as a fish tastes good, there's a market for it" - and soon, he quips, you see it fished to oblivion.

Fishelson, L. 2006. Evolution in action-peacock-feather like supraocular tentacles of the lionfish, Pterois volitans - the distribution of a new signal. Environmental Biology of Fishes 75(March):343-348. Abstract available at

Hare, J.A., and P.E. Whitfield. 2003. An Integrated Assessment of the Introduction of Lionfish (Pterois volitans/miles complex) to the Western Atlantic Ocean. NOAA Technical Memorandum NOS NCCOS 2. Washington, D.C.: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Available at

Asian fish threatens fishing industry
By SAM SMITH, Guardian Staff Reporter

Captain Bruce Purdy watched a teenage passenger collapse on the deck of his boat when she brushed the venomous spines of a skewered, dead lionfish. He's heard of recreational divers on Exuma being airlifted to Nassau after exposure to their prickly, poison-filled spines.

Though victims of lionfish stings have said the burning sensation can be so intense that they feel like dying, the venom isn't known to be fatal. What's really troubling Purdy and fellow researchers is the effect that the invasive species could have on the fragile ecology of Caribbean reefs and the commercial fishing industry.

Lionfish have been found along the Eastern United States for at least a decade. Some research puts the first Florida sighting in the mid-80s. But the research group REEF, of which Purdy's company Blackbeard's Cruises is a member, hadn't spotted the versatile predators, with no known enemies in Bahamian waters, until three years ago.

Since 2004, REEF (an acronym for reef environment education foundation) has witnessed a 500-fold explosion in the local lionfish population, and there's no telling how much damage the voracious predators might do. Though researchers differ on the extent to which lionfish will affect the overall commercial fishing and diving operations in The Bahamas, Purdy wants to sound alarms now, before things have a chance to get any worse.

"It could be the worst ecological disaster the world has ever seen," Purdy said. The lionfish population increase "is just so rapid, it's mind-boggling."

Effects on commercial fishing have been negligible, if intangible since the population explosion last year, but Purdy, who spends much of his days underwater counting tropical fish, has witnessed lionfish feeding in mangroves, where juvenile grouper and snapper typically find shelter from other, larger predators before reaching maturation. Purdy said dissections and stomach inspections of lionfish caught in Bahamian waters have proved they eat young commercial fish.

Research from the United States National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration on the lionfish population along the coast of the Southern states has found no local predators, though some speculate that mature grouper or sharks might brave the painful venom of a young lionfish. So far, no one knows just how large the lionfish population could become, and speculation on their effect ranges from minimal to catastrophic.

"The interesting thing about invasive species is that it's not uncommon for them to actually get bigger or do better in a new habitat" than in their native range, American researcher Paula Whitfield of NOAA told Science magazine for a recent article about the invasion in the U.S. "From all accounts, individual red lionfish off the Carolinas are growing much faster than native fish do. The phenomenon may reflect more food for the fish, fewer predators, or accommodations nicer than home in other ways," Science reported.

Mature lionfish can grow up to 18 inches long, and with their spines displayed broadly, they appear twice that size. Once fully grown, the lionfish have no natural enemies and can lay as many as 30,000 eggs several times a year. "In all honesty, I believe they're here to stay," said Director of Fisheries Michael Braynen. "The challenge now is how to control their growth and gather as much information as we can."

Indicative of how well established the population has become, Minister of Agriculture and Marine Resources Lawrence Cartwright, himself a commercial fisherman, said his son trapped one just a couple of days ago while wading among mangroves near the Cartwright's family home on Long Island. But characterizing the population's spread and identifying potential solutions will be easier said than done. Because the invasion is so recent and the characteristics of Caribbean reefs so different than those along the Eastern seaboard of the U.S., local research efforts have started virtually from scratch.

Dr. Kathleen Sealey, Dean of Natural Sciences at the College of The Bahamas, has been collecting and examining the reproductive organs of local lionfish populations with the help of graduate student assistants. Her team has been working closely with local fishermen to ascertain where the populations are highest and identify environmental characteristics that affect their rate of reproduction.

Braynen said Fisheries and the COB group are teaming up to develop a national database that will allow divers, fishermen and casual beachgoers to report lionfish sightings, as a solution to the current redundancy of research that is available in Fisheries' hodge-podge lionfish. The unwelcome and surprisingly adaptive predators have been found everywhere from waist-deep water around New Providence and Grand Bahama to mangrove shelters for commercial fish to 200-feet deep in blue holes around Andros and Eastern Cuba.

"Andros may have it the worst of all," Purdy said, indicating that in some of the blue holes lionfish appear to have eaten "100 percent" of the juveniles of several species during this year's spawn. Cartwright said government has given "the green light" to kill lionfish on the spot, with or without fishing licenses. Just don't touch them. Lionfish venom remains active for a couple of days after death.

That's exactly how the teenage girl on Purdy's boat got stung. A research diver came up with a lionfish on a spear - not in a bag, as Blackbeard's Cruises requires. The boat lurched a bit, and the girl "stumbled onto it - took a few spines in her thigh," Purdy recalled. "I bet that's the last time she'll do that."

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