Lionfish Arrive in the Florida Keys!

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Lad Akins holds a bag with the unwanted visitor captured off a Florida Keys reef.
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FKNMS staff, John Halas, writes the invader a "ticket" for multiple offenses to the native Florida Keys ecosystem. Photo by Frazier Nivens.
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After being euthanized, the lionfish was measured and preserved for further scientific study. It was 99 mm. Photo by Linda Bleser.

While we all knew it was just a matter of time, the call still came with a bit of surprise and dread as the first confirmed lionfish sighting in the Florida Keys came in on January 6th, 2009. REEF member Becky Fowler, from Greenville, SC, was diving just offshore of the Benwood Wreck in Key Largo when she spotted the invasive lionfish near the base of a ledge at 66'. With all of the recent focus and outreach efforts that REEF has been forwarding to our members, she knew immediately that she needed to document the sighting and gather a detailed description of its location. Upon her return to shore, she called REEF HQ and delivered the report. This set into motion the Rapid Response plan 

developed 7 months earlier in a REEF sponsored multi agency workshop (see REEFNotes article). Becky came by the REEF office, the images were verified, and her detailed site description was conveyed to Lad Akins, Director of Special Projects. The report was forwarded to the US Geological USGS alert system and Lad began response coordination with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) who has jurisdiction of resources at the sighting location.

The following morning, the response team made up of Lad Akins, Lisa Mitchell (REEF Exec. Dir.), John Halas (FKNMS), Frazier Nivens (Ocean Imaging) and Steve Campbell (Quiescence Diving Services) were assembled and on site at 10:30am. Following the excellent location description provided by Becky, the team was able to locate the fish, capture video footage, gather important data on site characteristics and the available nearby prey community, capture and bag the fish in under 14 minutes. The fish was captured live via hand nets, brought back to shore, euthanized and dissected. The 99mm immature male contained one 34mm prey fish in its stomach. Tissue samples, genetic material and other measurements were collected for further analysis by researchers at the NOAA Beaufort lab and Simon Fraser University. No other lionfish were found in the immediate vicinity.

While no one wanted to see lionfish show up in the Florida Keys, most knowledgeable sources believed it was inevitable and simply a matter of time. The one bright side of this story is that advanced planning and preparation initiated by REEF resulted in the awareness, accurate reporting, and successful rapid response effort that removed the fish less than 24 hours after its initial sighting. Hopes are that as lionfish show up in the Keys and other downstream areas, these rapid response efforts will help to control establishments and minimize impacts of this glutinous predator.

REEF continues to encourage divers to report their sightings of lionfish and other non-native fishes with as much detail as possible to www.reef.org/lionfish and to support lionfish research projects such as the January 17-24 project in the Turks and Caicos and the June 13-20 project in Belize. For more information, contact Lad Akins (Lad@REEF.org) (305) 852-0030.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub