Saturday, June 26, 2010

Lionfish continue to turn up in unlikely waters in the Florida Keys, apparently willing to go wherever currents take them.

Tim Hannah of Grassy Key was returning from a June 19 fishing trip near Flamingo when he stopped at a favorite snorkeling spot where the Gulf of Mexico merges into Florida Bay.

“It’s a nice little spot where you can see tropical fish and maybe turtles,” Hannah recounted.

He dipped to the bottom, only about 7 feet down, to peer into a hole. “This lionfish came flying out of the hole and got right in front of my mask,” Hannah said. “He was probably two feet away. I knew what it was, so I backpedaled. It was the first one I’ve seen up close and personal, so it was quite a surprise.”

The lionfish measured only about 4 inches, but it bristled with a worrisome array of venomous spines that safeguard it from virtually every other predatory fish in the ocean.

Lionfish, an invasive exotic species native to the Pacific Ocean, breed fast and eat ravenously. By devouring young tropical fish, algae-eaters and even juvenile spiny lobster, lionfish may well endanger South Florida’s natural marine ecosystems, biologists say.

“When hunting, [lionfish] herd and corner their prey using their pectoral fins, then quickly strike and swallow their prey whole,” says an Oregon State University study of a Bahamian reef in the Exumas in 2007.

“With few known natural predators, the lionfish poses a major threat to coral reef ecosystems in the Caribbean region by decreasing survival of a wide range of native reef animals.”

After being startled by the lionfish in the bay, Hannah retrieved his landing net from the boat and returned to the hole. “The lionfish was still sitting right there on top of the ledge,” he said.

He captured the fish and turned it over to authorities, who now have about 150 lionfish taken from Keys waters in their freezers, awaiting scientific analysis.

Federal biologists are logging contents of the lionfish stomachs to see what they’re eating locally.

University of North Carolina researchers are using genetic studies to see if they can track lionfish to a particular breeding area in South Florida.

“People are catching lionfish everywhere down here now,” said Cory Walter, a biologist at the Mote Marine Laboratory on Summerland Key. “But if they can find where the lionfish are spawning, maybe we can focus [eradication efforts] on that area to try to keep the numbers down.”

Lionfish have been spotted along the Atlantic Coast for several years, but had not been seen in Keys waters until January 2009. Their numbers apparently have grown quickly, as feared.

Studies suggest lionfish may have first reached U.S. waters when Hurricane Andrew flooded a Miami-Dade County aquarium in 1992. Private aquarists possibly released other lionfish when the fish outgrew tanks.

Since January 2009, lionfish have been seen at the Keys reef, on deep shipwrecks, in nearshore shallow water — and in gulf side waters near Everglades National Park.

“Lionfish have been found in Florida Bay, near Marathon, including several juveniles in solution holes,” said park spokeswoman Linda Friar.

“It’s not clear if they were [within] the park’s boundary [but] it’s not really important because fish swim and could easily be in the boundary one day and out the next,” she said.

“What’s clear is that [lionfish] are here — southern Florida Bay, Dry Tortugas National Park and all over Biscayne National Park.”

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