The first confirmed lionfish sighting in the Florida Keys occurred on Tuesday, January 6, 2009. REEF received this specific sighting report at 2:30pm on the 6th from one of our volunteer divers from South Carolina, who was diving on vacation in the Keys. She found the fish near the base of Benwood Ledge (66') just offshore of the Benwood wreck, Key Largo. Via the numerous REEF media alerts and notices, she knew the invasion of lionfish was an issue and grabbed a few images with her digital camera to confirm the sighting. She then took detailed notes on the location of the fish in relation to the dive site and upon her return to shore, contacted REEF staff to report the sighting. Upon review of her images, we confirmed the sighting and gathered a detailed description of the location of the fish. Following protocols developed in a multi agency workshop held in June of 2008, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) was notified and the report was forwarded to the US Geological Survey (USGS) Invasive Species Program. Response plans were coordinated between REEF and the FKNMS and a removal team was assembled.
The removal effort was initiated on the morning of January 7th. Following the extremely accurate site descriptions provided by the volunteer, the fish was found at the same location reported. The fish was captured alive via hand nets by REEF staff and returned to the shore where it was euthanized in a eugenol solution prior to dissection. No other lionfish were observed in the immediate vicinity. Total time between initial report and successful removal was less than 24 hours.
Additional information collected as part of the response effort included site conditions, habitat characterizations, and prey community assessments. Data on size, reproductive status, and stomach contents were gathered during dissection and tissue samples, genetic material and otoliths were preserved for further analysis.
The process of early detection, verification, warning, rapid response, habitat characterization, collection and dissection follow protocols developed in close partnership by REEF, the NOAA Beaufort Lab, USGS, Simon Fraser University, the National Aquarium in DC, the Bermuda Aquarium and others participating in our June 2008 invasive species workshop held in the Florida Keys and through our work in the Bahamas and Caribbean.
REEF encourages development and implementation of lionfish response plans by downstream countries in advance and in the early stages of the invasion to include outreach/awareness, reporting, notification, coordinated response and data gathering. In addition, involvement of local communities and market development (lionfish removal tournaments, lionfish as food fish, other uses) will provide venues for education and control.
REEF staff will be conducting numerous research and control projects as well as training and education workshops in various locations in the Caribbean and Bahamas this year.
The REEF/NOAA/USGS Early Detection/Rapid Response program in South Florida has responded to 15 sightings of non-native fishes over the past 6 months. Please continue to encourage reporting of all sightings of non-native marinespecies to REEF at http://www.reef.org/programs/exotic. To find our more about REEF's Lionfish Invasion Research Program, visit www.reef.org/lionfish.