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Deep-diving DNR scientists videotape lionfish

Saturday, August 3, 2002

Of The Post and Courier Staff

A pair of spiny, venomous invaders is lurking deep in the water about 55 miles east-southeast of Charleston, marine scientists discovered.

Two lionfish, natives of the Indo-Pacific, showed up in 179 feet of water in the lights of the deep-sea submersible Sea-Link II as it explored Julian's Ridge, a rocky reef and well-known commercial fishing spot off the South Carolina coast. And Friday, yet another was spotted 7 miles northeast of the first location.
Scott Meister and Dan Russ, S.C. Department of Natural Resources scientists, not only found the first pair of lionfish Thursday but also videotaped them during the national Islands in the Stream ocean exploration voyage that continues offshore of Charleston.

"There have been isolated reportings of this species in the South Atlantic, but to our knowledge, none have been photo documented (until now)," Paul Orlando of the National Ocean Service reported Friday from aboard the research vessel Seward Johnson.

South Carolina had no official lionfish sightings, although marine biologists have seen and caught lionfish off the coasts of Florida, North Carolina and New York. The popular aquarium resident preys on other marine life and can give people painful injections of venom. It is thought to have been released or to have escaped from aquariums on this side of the Atlantic.

Lionfish normally live in western Australia, Malaysia, Southern Japan, Korea and throughout Micronesia. The new sighting at 179 feet is about as deep, maybe even a bit deeper, than the fish has been known to live.
While a local scuba diver once reported seeing a lionfish in shallower water near here, the new confirmation raises the possibility that commercial fishermen might catch and touch the venomous fish.
Lionfish aren't the only residents of Julian's Ridge, a fragmented ridgeline that sometimes has a second parallel ridge, scientists learned this week.

Fishery managers may list the ridge as a Marine Protected Area, but first they hope the dives will provide information on the little-known deep reef, its inhabitants and its role in the lives of popular fish whose numbers are declining.

"There were several very exciting creatures that I saw hanging around the rocky ridge: a foot-long green sea cucumber, a spiny lobster and a very large porcupine fish," reported DNR biologist Marion Beal.
"They didn't seem to mind our intrusion into their world too much. Several were probably very entertained at the large, clumsy yellow critter with bright lights," she added.

The dives are designed partly to discover if snapper, grouper and other fish important to recreational and commercial fishermen use such reefs, especially proposed protected areas, for spawning.
Beal saw several pairs of scamp grouper swimming around each other, one in its gray-headed spawning color. "It almost looked like they were flirting with each other," Beal wrote from aboard the ship.
"The reef was gorgeous and a lot larger than I expected," she added. Greater amberjacks, groupers and large blue angelfish followed the submersible during most of the dive while hundreds of smaller fish such of small damselfish and butterflyfish hovered all around the sub.

That's not to mention all the sea snot, as sub pilots call it, small wooly tufts floating in the water above the reef.
Meanwhile Marine Biologist Cindy Cooksey of the National Ocean Service Charleston lab dove to collect sand and to see whether the sediment comes from an area where reef fish come out to forage. Until now, she's taken samples blindly from ship decks.

"People often wonder why we want to study the seemingly barren sand layer that covers vast stretches of the ocean floor. One good reason is because this important habitat is not barren at all," she said. She found worms, mollusks, crustaceans and fish but will use a microscope in her lab to find the tiny residents.
She described her first-ever submersible dive, 200 feet below the surface, as "a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see with my own eyes the complex ecosystem ... that can be found on the edge of our continental shelf."