News Column

Aquarium workers collect invasive lionfish

July 28, 2014

By Kate Elizabeth Queram, Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.

July 28--Spiny, striped lionfish are swimming at aquariums in Connecticut, South Carolina and Pine Knoll Shores thanks to staff from the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher, who caught several dozen of the invasive species on two diving trips last month and transported them to other facilities.

"We collected about 48 of them so far this summer," said Hap Fatzinger, the aquarium's curator. "There were requests from other facilities that wanted to display Atlantic lionfish, so during dives we made for other animals, we went ahead and grabbed some lionfish as well."

The lionfish, a spiny, brown-and-white striped animal native to the South Pacific and Indian oceans, has been present in North Carolina waters since at least the early 2000s. While visually stunning, the invasive species is a prolific breeder and a voracious eater that can quickly and easily thin populations of native fish. Lionfish are covered in venomous spikes and thus have very few predators in Carolina waters, which can make it difficult to control their population sprawl.

Snagging a few dozen fish for aquarium displays doesn't make a dent in those numbers, according to Fatzinger. The only thing that's proved effective in thinning lionfish populations off the North Carolina coast is cold weather.

"There are some temperature restrictions on them," Fatzinger said. "The 100-foot water depth is kind of the standard. We might find them in more shallow water in the summer, but we know they persist at greater depths all year."

Because of their spikes, capturing lionfish is a precarious process. Aquarium staff snag the fish in vinyl nets and transfer them to 5-gallon buckets without touching their bodies, but once the buckets are brought to the surface, avoiding contact becomes more difficult.

"As we come up, the water in their swim bladder expands. It's the same as if you held your breath underwater and came to the surface," Fatzinger said. "So we have to use hypodermic needles to expel that gas from their swim bladders. We do it very carefully, but a couple of us get pricked. It is very painful."

Some fish are mailed to their new homes in heavy-duty plastic bags with cardboard between the layers to keep spikes from puncturing through. But others are transported by car. Last week, Fatzinger drove several to Connecticut, where they'll be shown at the Norwalk Maritime Aquarium. For his trouble, Fatzinger received some new residents for the Ft. Fisher facility.

"We took lionfish up," he said, "and we returned with some sharks."

Kate Elizabeth Queram: 343-2217

On Twitter: @kate_goes_bleu


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Source: Star-News (Wilmington, NC)

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