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September 14, 2009

Venomous lionfish should be avoided by divers, anglers

Lionfish, an introduced marine species with highly venomous spines, should be avoided or handled with great care by divers and fishermen, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

The lionfish (Pdf file) is a native of Pacific coral reefs and now inhabits much of the Bahamas, Caribbean and the Southeast coast including South Carolina. It's thought to have escaped from the aquarium trade in Florida in the early 1990’s. Lionfish have 18 venomous spines that contain a neurotoxin capable of causing extreme pain and possibly nausea, paralysis and convulsions although they weigh only about a pound as adults.  Anyone stung by a lionfish should seek immediate medical treatment.

Lionfish have invaded many of South Carolina’s offshore artificial reefs, but S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) divers report only small numbers on most reefs built in more than 70 feet of water.  No lionfish have been observed near beaches or in inshore waters. Natural live bottoms farther offshore provide more stable water temperature and support somewhat larger populations of lionfish.
Lionfish are voracious predators and can greatly reduce native fish, which may hinder efforts to rebuild depleted stocks of valuable bottom fishes such as snapper and grouper.  Lionfish probably have few natural predators, especially in local waters.

Although divers and anglers have called for efforts to eradicate or at least control lionfish in offshore waters, Mel Bell, director of the Office of Fisheries Management for the Marine Resources Division, considers any such measures expensive and probably not effective. "Unfortunately, like other invasive species, lionfish are here to stay, and while we could reduce their population in specific areas, we could never completely eradicate them," Bell said. "At the moment they do not present a major problem but it may take years before we know the full-scale environmental impact of lionfish in offshore waters."

Bell knows of only two people in the state who have been stung by lionfish and while they reported the experience as "very painful and unpleasant" both fully recovered.

DNR will be working with the National Marine Fisheries Service and other agencies to collect more information on lionfish and to study ways to better control this invasive species.

South Carolina's natural resources are essential for economic development and contribute nearly $30 billion and 230,000 jobs to the state's economy. Find out why Life's Better Outdoors.


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