VIERS Researcher Finds Second Confirmed Lionfish Off St. John Shores

This lionfish found off Great Lameshur Bay was a two-inch juvenile.

Scientists conducting research at the V.I. Environmental Research Station captured the second confirmed lionfish off the coast of St. John, this time off the southern shore.

Researchers were snorkeling the seagrass beds at Great Lameshur Bay on Sunday, March 28, when they spotted the tell-tale markings and coloring of a lionfish, explained V.I. National Park’s chief of resource management Rafe Boulon, who did not find the fish.

“The researcher was looking at a coil and went down to look at the fish that were living in there and he saw the lionfish,” said Boulon. “He tried to catch it with a net, but the mesh was too big.”

The lionfish was two inches long, meaning it was still in its juvenile state, explained Rafe.

Too small to capture with a net, the scientist asked a nearby boater for help.

“There was a boat nearby with someone on board and they asked for a spear gun,” said Boulon. “After explaining why he needed to use it in park waters, the guy handed him a spear gun and he caught the fish.”

The juvenile fish most likely floated to the area from a distance off the southern shore of St. John, explained Boulon.

“Lionfish have a 27 day larval period when they can float quite a long distance in the water,” he said. “This one probably floated here from somewhere else, possibly quite a distance off-shore.”

After capturing the lionfish, the VIERS researcher turned the specimen over to VINP officials, Boulon added.

The March 28 haul marked the second confirmed lionfish caught off St. John, after the species was first discovered in U.S. Virgin Islands waters off St. Croix last year.

Local scientists have been vigilant about capturing all reported lionfish due to their potential danger to local reef fish. Lionfish were first introduced to the Atlantic Ocean following the devastation of Florida from Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Researchers believe the species found its way into the Atlantic Ocean most likely from a tropical fish owner who dumped his tank into the sea.

Since then, the species has spread through the Caribbean, first wreaking havoc on coral reef systems ringing the Bahamas. Lionfish have no natural predators themselves in the Atlantic Ocean and prey on local reef fish, which are vital to the heath of the reef. Once the reef fish disappear, the corals themselves can quickly die.

Bahamian officials have reported as many as 1,000 lionfish per acre in their waters. Desperately trying to avoid a similar situation in the Virgin Islands — where coral reefs are just recovering from a devastating bleaching episode — scientists urge anyone who spots a lionfish to capture it or report it, explained Boulon.

“We have to be vigilant about lionfish and keep looking for them and, as much as possible, try to remove them or at least report any sightings of them,” said Boulon. “Ideally you want to kill the fish, but their spines are pretty toxic so if anyone isn’t comfortable with a speargun it’s best to report it to us.”

A swimmer who spots a lionfish should get as detailed of a description as possible of the location and call VINP officials. To aid in the effort, VINP officials are hoping to distribute flags for swimmers to mark where they spot lionfish, Boulon explained.

“We’re going to be providing little corks with lengths of flagging tape and a weight to help people mark the area where they spot a lionfish,” he said. “The markers can’t be seen from the surface, the lines aren’t that long. But since these fish don’t move around very much, they could really help.”

To report a lionfish sighting call 693-8950, extension 225 or 224.