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Invasive lionfish found in Gray's Reef
By Matt Dozier
National Marine Sanctuary Program

NOAA scientists have confirmed the arrival of an unwelcome visitor to Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary — the venomous red lionfish. Beautiful yet potentially dangerous, the lionfish sports a plume of feathery spines that can deliver a painful sting, and its voracious appetite has given marine resource managers cause for concern.

Matt Kendall, a marine biologist with NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, photographed two adult red lionfish in the sanctuary in late September 2007 during a scientific dive. The lionfish, an invasive species whose maroon and white zebra stripes and delicate appearance make it a favorite of the saltwater aquarium trade, was likely introduced into southeastern Atlantic coastal waters in the early 1990s. 

“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.”

The lionfish were spotted at Gray’s Reef between 60 and 70 feet below the surface, making it one of the shallowest confirmed sightings of the fish. While expeditions off the coast of North Carolina in 2005 and 2006 found lionfish primarily at depths greater than 100 feet, more recently scientific divers have observed the invasive fish in shallower water depths along the coast and at varying temperatures, raising concerns that lionfish might spread farther and faster than originally thought.

These finding may shed light on how close to shore the fish can survive off the East Coast south of Cape Hatteras, where nearshore water temperatures are cool in winter. NOAA scientists studying lionfish note that sightings of the species in the Gray's Reef sanctuary’s temperate waters highlights the need for early detection and rapid local eradication effort responses.

Lionfish stings — a new potential hazard for divers in the area — can be excruciatingly painful and are a marine-related injury not previously encountered by area physicians, hospitals or first responders. Pain may spread an entire limb and regional lymph nodes following contact with the spines of a lionfish 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.

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 and water temperature information and GPS coordinates, if possible.

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