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Where When How Summer 2017 : Page 88

How did this happen? Researchers point to several possible scenarios by which lionfish may have entered the western Atlantic. A popular theory blames the devastation wrought in 1992 by Hurricane Andrew. A home on Miami’s Biscayne Bay, containing an aquarium with six lionfish, was destroyed by the storm and shortly thereafter several of the sur-vivors were spotted in the bay. But others maintain that lionfish were present long before Andrew. At least one reliable report docu-ments a lionfish being caught from a fishing pier in Lake Worth, Florida, in 1983. Aside from where it happened, it appears pretty certain that at least some lionfish weren’t accidentally introduced at all; their re-lease was quite intentional. A scientific paper published in 2004 con-cluded that the most logical source of the lionfish was the release by hobbyists who either lost interest in their pets or had fish that grew too large for their aquarium. The phenomenon that I’m referring to isn’t global warming, coral bleaching or even the more recently recognized prob-lem of ocean acidification. This is the re-sult of a type of fish that ended up where it didn’t belong. And unless you live some-place where TV and the Internet are illegal, you probably already know the culprit. Ac-tually, there are two culprits, Pterois voli-tans and Pterois miles , known collectively and more familiarly as simply, lionfish. Today there’s no doubt that this beauti-ful but venomous transplant from the Indo-Pacific has, in fact, become a perma-nent Atlantic resident — the first tropical marine fish ever to do so. A Complete Circle When we examined the lionfish prob-lem back in 2007, most reports were coming from the Gulf Stream-influenced waters off North Carolina and the central Bahamas. Since then, with the exception of Barbados and a tiny portion of the southern Antilles, lionfish are now found residing throughout the Greater Caribbean and beyond. Thus, what was a relatively local issue now affects the en-tire region. (Though Brazil is not yet af-fected, the assumption is that their invasion is only a matter of time.) Lionfish have even spread into the Gulf of Mexico as far north as Bradenton, Florida, trans-forming the phenomenon from an inva-sion to a full-on takeover. For a long time the hope was that lion-fish would not complete their circular in-vasion of the entire Caribbean basin — that somehow natural barriers, such as opposing currents or long distances, would keep the invaders isolated in spe-cific locales. For example, although lionfish have been routinely sighted along Florida’s Gold Coast (Miami to Palm Beach), they were absent from diving’s Mecca, the Florida Keys. The Keys were thought to be protected from the Bahamian epicenter by the fact that the Gulf Stream flows in the wrong direction — away from, rather than toward, the Keys. But all hopes were dashed in January 2009 when the first re-ports came in from Key Largo. By May they were spotted regularly off Key Largo, and by October lionfish were Keys-wide. Now reports are coming in at a rate of more than a dozen per day, with more 88 • • • • • SUMMER 2017 “Where When How -Turks & Caicos Islands”

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