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Predatory lionfish now a confirmed invader in the deep Atlantic

Scientists have confirmed that the hardy, Indo-Pacific fish that has invaded waters off the US East Coast and the Caribbean is now living deep in the Atlantic, possibly imperiling smaller fish there.

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A saltwater volitan lionfish displays its huge number of venomous spines in Amherst, Ohio, in 2010.

Nate Parsons/The Morning Journal/AP

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An expedition down to the Atlantic depths has confirmed for the first time that the lionfish, an invasive species, is living there. The expedition verifies anecdotal evidence that the venomous animal is eluding eradication and imperiling native fish.

Last month, the first expedition to send a deep-diving submersible down to investigate the Atlantic Ocean lionfish invasion found at 300 feet deep large populations of the fish. Scientists believe that native fish are becoming lionfish prey, as the lionfish hunts any fish smaller than it, and are also losing out against the foreign fish in the competition for food.

“This data has confirmed for us that we have a problem there,” said Stephanie Green, lead scientist on the project and a postdoctoral associate at Oregon State University’s Hixon Lab, noting that researchers are still investigating the exact scale of the issue. “This is the first time we’ve had a look at what the problem is in deep depths – it’s the next frontier in this study.”

Scientists have traced the lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific and the first exotic fish to invade the Caribbean, to the aquarium trade between oceans in the 1980s. The fish were likely released into the ocean near southern Florida. 

“Genetic work has showed that the whole invasion began from a few releases,” said Dr. Green.

Divers have been relatively successful at removing lionfish from Florida’s shallow coral reefs, and there have been various efforts in the region to drive up dinner-table demand for the fish. The Reef Environmental Education Foundation Fund sells a cookbook devoted to lionfish recipes, as well as a list of local restaurants that serve lionfish. Conferences on the invasive species have ended with tastings of lionfish cuisine.

But deep-sea dives to the depths that the lionfish has now claimed are not possible, and humans have not been able to remove them. That raises concern that the fish might use the deep sea as a base from which to retake the shallower water.

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