Red lionfish, a venomous invasive species from the western Pacific Ocean, have been confirmed for the first time in NOAA’s Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, located in the Atlantic 20 miles off the Georgia coast. Matt Kendall, a marine biologist with NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, photographed two adult lionfish in the sanctuary in late September during a scientific dive.
The lionfish were spotted between 60 and 70 feet below the surface, making it one of the shallowest confirmed adult lionfish sightings. This finding may shed light on how close to shore they can survive off the East coast south of Cape Hatteras, where near-shore water temperatures are cool in winter.
“Discovery of the lionfish represents a challenge for both sanctuary management and scuba divers in the area,” said George Sedberry, Gray’s Reef sanctuary superintendent. “Without any natural predators in southeastern waters, lionfish put indigenous marine species at risk due to competition for food and space and their role as a predator of smaller fish.”
Lionfish stings can be excruciatingly painful and are a new marine-related injury not previously encountered by area physicians, hospitals, or first responders. Pain may spread to the entire limb and regional lymph nodes and can last up to 12 hours, according to the Divers Alert Network, which recommends that any diver stung by a lionfish seek advanced medical care.
Red lionfish have maroon and white zebra stripes and a plume of feathery spines, making it a favorite of the saltwater aquarium trade. The species was likely introduced into southeastern Atlantic coastal waters in the early 1990s. In 2002, researchers observed several lionfish in depths of about 180 feet off North Carolina and South Carolina during submersible dives.
In 2005 and 2006, NOAA ocean research expeditions aboard the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster found lionfish primarily in water depths greater than 100 feet off the coast of North Carolina, where the warm Gulf Stream waters moderate bottom water temperatures year round. Recently, scientific divers have spotted the invasive fish in shallower water depths from Florida to North Carolina and at varying temperatures, raising concerns that the fish might spread farther and faster than originally thought.
NOAA scientists studying lionfish note that the sighting of the species in the Gray's Reef sanctuary’s temperate waters highlights the need for early detection and rapid local eradication effort responses.
Divers visiting the Gray’s Reef sanctuary are urged to exercise caution around lionfish. Sanctuary officials are asking divers to report sightings of lionfish to Gray’s Reef sanctuary staff at 912-598-2345 and to provide date, time, depth, water temperature information and GPS coordinates if possible.
NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and information service delivery for transportation, and by providing environmental stewardship of our nation's coastal and marine resources. Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners, more than 70 countries and the European Commission to develop a global monitoring network that is as integrated as the planet it observes, predicts and protects.
On the Internet:
National Ocean Service
National Marine Sanctuary Program
Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary