Experts warn the exotic, poisonous species could spread in Keys waters.
Where one lionfish is found, many others almost certainly lurk, says Bahamas dive operator Bruce Purdy.

“You probably have a whole bunch down there in the Keys,” said Purdy. “It takes a few months after they settle before people start seeing them.” The first Pacific lionfish spotted in the Bahamas was reported by one of Purdy’s Blackbeard’s Cruises boats in November 2004. Now, the venomous lionfish are common throughout Bahamian waters.

“Some of the areas are getting overwhelmed,” Purdy said. “The population explosion is incredible. The numbers are huge compared to what they were just two years ago.”

The first confirmed sighting and capture of a Pacific lionfish in the Florida Keys happened last week on a deep reef at the Benwood Ledge, off Key Largo.

“Remember that nobody goes to two-thirds of the [Keys underwater] habitat,” Purdy said. “Lionfish can be on the deep reefs, or in the mangroves or way out in the Dry Tortugas. Nobody knows.” South Carolina diver Becky Fowler photographed the Keys lionfish in about 65 feet of water not far from the Benwood wreck.

“I thought that can’t be a lionfish, they don’t have lionfish in the Keys,” recounted Fowler, diving off a Silent World boat. “But there wasn’t anything else it could possibly be.” Fowler read in the Reef Environmental Education Foundation newsletter about efforts to keep lionfish out of the Keys. She also has seen the spread of lionfish in the Bahamas while on vacation from her accounting profession.

“I was in Freeport last September,” she said. “There are quite a number of them. It was common to see three or four lionfish on every dive.”

A dive team from REEF, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Quiescence Diving Center quickly found and netted the lionfish Jan. 7 at the site described by Fowler. Lionfish sport an array of feathery plumed spines, all of which pack a strong venom jolt.

“The first time I got hit, the spine nearly went through my hand,” Purdy said. “It hurt so bad I wanted to cut my hand off with a meat cleaver. It’s much worse than an urchin sting.” While usually painful and occasionally causing temporary paralysis, lionfish stings are not considered fatal. But any serious injury at depth can threaten a diver’s life.

Treatment with hot water, a common remedy for jellyfish stings, helped make the pain bearable, Purdy said.

“A bunch of people [in the Bahamas] have been stuck,” he said, “but you almost have to work at it. Usually somebody moves their hand and hits one, or isn’t looking where they’re going.” Lionfish are not aggressive, but the potent protection of their venom means they feel no need to flee from people or large predators.

The primary concern, say experts, is that lionfish breed rapidly and eat just about anything. That could upset the ecological balance at the Keys reef, and reduce the numbers of food fish and popular reef fish.

Lionfish apparently have no natural predators in the Atlantic Ocean.

“We have a response plan to control them if possible,” said Dave Score, the Keys sanctuary superintendent. “We believe we have the opportunity because of the large number of divers in the Keys. They can be part of the solution.”

One suggestion: Find a cooking recipe for lionfish, like the blackened-redfish craze that nearly depleted the redfish stock.

“They actually are very tasty. I’ve eaten a lot of them,” said Purdy. “The problem is that a lionfish filet is about what you’d get from a small grunt.”

The best hope, he believes, “is to spend a bunch of money finding out what controls the populations in the Pacific.”

Anyone seeing a lionfish should report it immediately, but do not attempt to capture it. Call REEF at 852-0030 or the Mote MEERA project at 395-8730.