NOAA 2004-R519
Contact: Jana Goldman

NOAA News Releases 2004
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Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will lead a diving expedition off the North Carolina coast August 2-20 to learn more about a venomous predatory fish whose population appears to be growing in waters along Florida, North Carolina and Bermuda. NOAA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The Indo-Pacific lionfish, Pterois volitans, over the past four years established itself as the first Pacific marine fish known to populate Atlantic waters, particularly around reefs off the southeast United States. An aquarium fish popular for its brilliant colors, the venomous lionfish most likely was introduced to Atlantic waters by intentional or unintentional releases from aquariums.

Scientist Paula Whitfield of NOAA’s Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research, in Beaufort, N.C., will lead the diving expedition sponsored by the NOAA Undersea Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington to hunt and collect lionfish off the coast to better understand its ecology and its potential impact on native fish communities.

“These beautiful, but unwelcomed, visitors pose potential risks both to people and to their new marine environment,” says Whitfield.

She cautions that catching a lionfish may cause painful stings from the fish’s neurotoxins and that other fish species can be paralyzed when stung by lionfish. Most observations of lionfish have occurred in waters more than 100 feet deep. Divers and those fishing in waters at that dept are most likely to have encounters with the fish.

Lionfish are believed to pose particular risks to the local environment. The invasive lionfish have few if any natural predators in their new Atlantic environment. They are voracious predators that feed on small shrimp and large fishes, including the young of important commercial fish species such as snapper and grouper. These commercial fish use the region’s “live bottom” reefs as nursery grounds.

Using deep water SCUBA diving and underwater tools from NOAA’s Undersea Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, the scientists have the following goals:

  • establish baseline lionfish and native fish populations;
  • characterize the ecological role of lionfish to better determine potential risks;
  • evaluate lionfish temperature tolerances to support ecological forecasts of geographic distribution, depth and latitude.

Scientists will use remote camera surveys to estimate lionfish densities and allow year-to-year comparisons. Those surveys also will provide valuable baseline data on native fish diversity. Using known lionfish temperature tolerances and bottom-water temperature data, the scientists hope to more accurately predict potential geographic distribution. They will use lionfish specimens to better understand reproductive status, diet, size, age and other genetic information.

“There’s been little research directly examining the impacts of a marine fish in an open marine system,” Whitfield said. “We hope our research can lead to improved understanding of the lionfish invasion and its consequences and improve scientific understanding of fish invasions overall.”

Scuba divers and others experiencing lionfish sightings are encouraged to contact Whitfield immediately at (252) 728-8714 or e-mail: She hopes to receive location coordinates, depth information and, if possible, photographs or video. Divers and fishermen should not try to capture fish due to risk of being stung.

NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through research to better understand atmospheric and climate variability and to manage wisely our nation's coastal and marine resources.

On the Web:


For additional information, contact Whitfield: or,

for questions concerning the technologies being used, contact Andrew Shepard, NOAA Undersea Research Center at UNCW, at 910-962-2446,

Web logs, photographs, and video clips from the cruise will be posted online at the NOAA Beaufort Lab Web site:

and the NURC/UNCW Web site: