On Sunday, February 1, “N2 the Blue Dive Shop” notified Dr. William Coles, Endangered Species Coordinator and Chief of Aquatic Education of the Division of Fish and Wildlife, of a possible sighting of a lionfish.
Local divers were taking underwater footage just north of the Rainbow Shallows mooring buoy and were unable to identify a particular species. Coles responded and positively identified the fish in the video as a Pacific Species of the deadly lionfish.
The next day, on February 2, Coles coordinated with a team of local divers to search for and collect the lionfish. After only 20 minutes of searching, divers discovered the fish in 50 feet of water, 300 feet north of the Rainbow Shallows mooring buoy.
This is the second lionfish recovered in USVI waters in four months. In November 2008, when the first fish was caught, the Department of Planning and Natural Resources began an outreach program about introduced and invasive species, focusing on the lionfish.
The fish (15cm total length) is now preserved in ethanol at the St. Croix, Division of Fish and Wildlife office at Mars Hill and will be on display at the DPNR booth at this year’s Agriculture and Food Fair. The fish, identified as an immature male, was dissected and its stomach contained three small gobies. Tissue will be preserved for genetics testing.
“If the genetics of these fish suggest that they are from a distant population, for example the Bahamas or Florida, it would indicate that boat traffic was probably responsible for the introduction of the fish into our local waters, but if the fish are genetically related to those in Puerto Rico it still doesn’t discount boat introductions, but increases the likelihood of a natural introduction (by ocean currents or wind distribution),” said Coles.
“Either way it is important to determine how these fish are arriving, so that we can develop an aggressive management strategy to deal with the invasion,” Coles said.
The fish, which are highly venomous to humans, pose a serious threat to the already depleted coral reefs in the Caribbean. The invasive species eat native fish which are integral to the health of coral, according to the website Science Daily.
“The invasion of predatory lionfish in the Caribbean region poses yet another major threat there to coral reef ecosystems — a new study has found that within a short period after the entry of lionfish into an area, the survival of other reef fishes is slashed by about 80 percent,” according to the website.
“Aside from the rapid and immediate mortality of marine life, the loss of herbivorous fish also sets the stage for seaweeds to potentially overwhelm the coral reefs and disrupt the delicate ecological balance in which they exist,” according to the www.sciencedaily.com. “
The lionfish is believed to have been introduced to the Atlantic in the early 1990s from Florida aquariums. Since then, the species has spread throughout the Carrieban and it seems only a matter of time before they invade waters around St. John.
“I think lionfish will show up in St. John very soon,” said Dr. Caroline Rogers, a marine biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Anyone who spots a lionfish should call Fish and Wildlife at 775-6762.