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Invasive Lionfish Captured in Virgin Islands National Park
The lionfish poses another threat to the Caribbean ecosystem.
Credit: Oregon State University

The lionfish, a striped fish with venomous spines, has invaded the waters of Virgin Islands National Park, NOAA divers announced Friday.

The divers identified and killed a 6-inch (15-centimeter)- long lionfish in Fish Bay along the southern coast of St. John on July 16, marking the fourth lionfish capture and kill in the park's waters.

The lionfish is native to the Indo-Pacific, but has proved adept at surviving in oceans across the globe. The fish first appeared in Caribbean waters in the 1990s, likely released by aquarium hobbyists. The released fish multiplied quickly, consuming native fish and competing with them for food. Now, many marine biologists fear that lionfish will disrupt the Caribbean ecosystem permanently.

"Lionfish pose a huge threat to the coral reef ecosystems of the U.S. Virgin Islands," Rafe Boulon, Chief of Resource Management for the Virgin Islands National Park and the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, said in a statement. "The native fish populations are essentially defenseless in the face of this threat. And once established, lionfish are very difficult to control."

Lionfish were first spotted in the U.S. Virgin Islands off the coast of St. Croix in 2008. Divers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noticed the most recent individual on July 15, and were able to capture and kill it in the same area the next day.

In an attempt to control the lionfish invasion, NOAA has launched an "Eat Lionfish" campaign, which works with chefs, fishermen and wholesalers to promote the development of a market for these fish. NOAA scientists have determined that a major fishing effort is required to reduce lionfish numbers and mitigate their impact on reef ecosystems.