First Confirmed Lionfish Captured Off St. John — Local Reef Fish Could Face Serious Danger

The lionfish has arrived at the shores of Love City, and V.I. National Park personnel are mobilizing to ensure the deadly fish does not establish a population in St. John waters.

Sporadic reports of lionfish in the area have come in over the past few months; however, a “very credible report” from Maho Bay Watersports a few weeks ago spurred the VINP to take notice, explained VINP Chief of Resource Management Rafe Boulon.

“They reported seeing the lionfish between Waterlemon Cay and Thread Needle Point, east of Waterlemon,” said Boulon. “They gave us a pretty good description of where they saw it.”

The report came in late on a Friday afternoon, and with no divers available, the VINP was not able to conduct its search until the following Tuesday, when divers came up empty.

Boulon was called again on Monday, March 8, when St. John resident Ernest Matthias reported seeing a lionfish in the same area reported by Maho Bay Watersports. Matthias tried in earnest to capture the fish in a small bag, but was unsuccessful.

“We went the following Tuesday morning (March 9), and bam, we went into the water and there it was,” said Boulon. “I think it had been kind of spooked from being chased around the day before, but we caught it and brought it back in.”

The eight inch-long juvenile lionfish, whose sex was not able to be determined, represents the beginning of what could evolve into a very serious threat to local reef fish.

Lionfish have continued to appear in the Caribbean in growing numbers since they were likely introduced to the oceans surrounding Florida during the devastation of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew.

The Bahamas, which is grappling with a lionfish problem of its own, has reported densities of lionfish of more than 1,000 per acre, which is “very high,” according to Boulon.

“Some studies there show the lionfish wiped out 80 percent of the small fish population,” he said. “Somebody who works on the lionfish in the Bahamas said they eat small reef fish like popcorn. They’re very efficient predators.”

Nearly all of Love City’s small reef fish, including grunts, tangs and parrotfish, are likely to be preyed upon by the lionfish, and because local fish aren’t familiar with the lionfish, they don’t know that it presents a danger.

“We have naïve prey,” said Boulon. “They just don’t recognize the lionfish as a predator. It’s a real concern if these things get well established, because it will have quite an impact on our natural marine fish populations.”

The Bahamas has not had much success in controlling the lionfish population; however, their failure may be due to how expansive and unpopulated the country’s islands are, according to Boulon. While St. John waters may be easier to monitor, the lionfish’s habits don’t lend to an easy capture.

“Unfortunately, they can be found in anywhere from three feet to 200 feet of water,” said Boulon. “They could be all over the place. The most we can do is try to keep the population as low as we can through monitoring and removal of the animals.”

Add to that the fact that a lionfish can lay around 48,000 eggs at one time, or 2.4 million eggs per year, and it’s clear the VINP is facing an uphill battle.

The lionfish captured last week near Waterlemon Cay has been pickled, and its stomach contents are being analyzed to determine what the fish had been eating. The specimen will be sent off to National Oceanic and Atmospheric

Administration experts, who will analyze the lionfish’s DNA in an attempt to determine which route it took to arrive in the VI.

In the meantime, the VINP is asking the public to keep its eyes open for the dramatic-looking fish, with stripes and large, spiny fins.

“We request that people don’t try to handle them, because their spines are very toxic,” said Boulon. “Report the sighting to us, or to V.I. Fish and Wildlife, with as much information on the location of the lionfish as possible.”

Because lionfish are territorial and don’t move around much once they have settled down, an accurate description of the location of the sighting can help ensure a capture.

In addition to seeking help from the public, the VINP plans to begin monitoring some of the park’s more sensitive habitats, such as mangroves and reef areas.

“We’re at the very beginning of this,” said Boulon. “It’s going to be a challenge.”