Expedition Lionfish 2013, a project to study invasive lionfish off the coast of south Florida at depths beyond the limits of recreational divers, is a collaborative effort of business, government, education, and private citizens to bring new insight to the worldwide lionfish threat.
This three day event began with research work by noted scientists using a manned submersible to gather data at depths of up to 300 feet. It culminates in a day long summit bringing together representatives from the research community, government policy makers, and the media. The event is hosted by Nova Southeastern University’s Oceanographic Center- 8000 North Ocean Drive, Dania Beach, Florida. The objective is to advance the scientific understanding and awareness of lionfish and their threat to worldwide ecosystems.
The project is using the manned submersible Antipodes from Oceangate to allow researchers to explore deep waters off our coast. Here, beyond the limits of recreational divers, they are finding alarming lionfish populations and giving us a greater understanding of the problem.
After the initial dives several scientists shared their observations and understanding of the lionfish threat. Interviews were conducted with Dr. Steve Gittings Chief Scientist of the National Marine Sanctuary Program for NOAA, Dr. Keene Haywood, Director of Education, Exploration Science Program at the University of Miami Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy; Miami, Florida, and Dr. David Kerstetter, Research Scientist & Adjunct Professor at Nova Southeastern University; Fort Lauderdale, Florida among others. We visited the Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center facilities where lionfish research is being conducted and gained insight into the magnitude of the lionfish threat.
On this first day there were several noteworthy points that were universally agreed upon by the researchers we spoke with. The research indicates that the lionfish invasion worldwide is now growing exponentially with the range and numbers increasing at a highly accelerated rate. All agreed that general awareness has grown dramatically but there are still many unanswered questions with no solution in site. Studies have shown that lionfish thrive at depths of up to 1,000 feet but currently water temperature tolerance limits their range to tropical and subtropical waters. Every researcher we spoke with felt that the efforts of recreational divers to eliminate lionfish were having a significant impact on populations. They noted that at recreational depths along the Florida coast the number and size of lionfish is decreasing and they are thankful for the success of private lionfish elimination efforts. This study, unfortunately is confirming suspicions that lionfish populations in deeper waters are growing. The initial deep dives found lionfish inhabiting almost any structure encountered and their size was greater than those commonly found in shallower waters. All observers agreed that populations of other species of fish appeared to be much lower in areas where lionfish were found.
There is much to learn and much work to be done to combat this problem that threatens the environment we love. Efforts like Expedition Lionfish 2013 contribute greatly to our understanding of the problem and with the proper focus a solution may be found. Work being done by individual divers is undoubtedly having an impact and by combining efforts we can hopefully prevent the lionfish on our reefs from becoming as one scientist expressed it, “the new norm.”
Watch our video for Dr. Kerstetter's message for recreational divers.