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Lionfish Found at the NEADC Tropical Fish Hunt!

For those of you who were unable to attend the September General Meeting, the NEADC Annual Tropical Fish Count was an historic event this year. Sunday September 17th 2006, along with other tropical fish, one of our very own members, Chris Benoit found a juvenile lionfish. The lionfish was transported by New England Aquarium Staff and is now residing in New Hampshire. This was the first lionfish ever found in New England waters. The story of the discovery was carried on NECN.

Story from the Hingham Journal

Chris Benoit, 15, a Hingham High freshman, wasn’t sure what he had found - but his uncle knew the tiny, brightly colored fish was unique.

"I nearly spit my regulator out," recalls Charles Benoit of Scituate. "Chris had it cupped in his hands and when he let it out, the fish fanned out like a peacock."

The two were on their second dive of the day off the coast of Jamestown, R.I. with the New England Aquarium Dive Club. On an earlier dive that September morning, Chris caught a butterfly fish and a trigger fish, and Charles caught a Beau-Gregory Damsel, all tropical species.

But the red lionfish that Chris found is making waves across the country because it is the most northerly documented capture of the invasive species ever recorded.

The annual NE Aquarium Dive Club event provides a way to capture tropical species that the Gulf Stream takes north. The fish, which are collected and donated to aquariums and science centers, would die once the water temperature starts to drop.

"We were making our way along the left side of the cove, when lo and behold, Chris turned around to get my attention," Charles says. "Then I saw the lionfish cupped in his hands and I thought. ’Whoa, that does not belong here.’ I knew it was not just another tropical fish."

The two - who were out just for fun on the second dive and did not bring nets along - were able to cup the fish in gloved hands and get it to shore. They called upon another family member to bring a net and bucket. Once ashore, they found a representative from the Seacoast Science Center who had the equipment to transport the fish.

Steven Engstrom, aquarist with the Rye, N.H.-based Seacoast Science Center, said the center is excited to have the fish, which is about the size of a golf ball and has already grown 1/4 inch since being in captivity. Engstrom explained the lionfish is of particular interest because it is an invasive species meaning it can crowd out other fish that are native to the Atlantic by taking their food, habitat and breeding ground.

He said the lionfish, which is native to the Indo-Pacific, was likely introduced to waters off Florida as a way to boost the diving economy. In other words, the more exotic fish there are along the reefs the better, in the competitive industry. Most species that are introduced do not take hold, but the lionfish, which has been found off the coast of North Carolina, apparently has.

Engstrom explained the lionfish likely started its journey as an egg last spring and was taken along the Gulf Stream perhaps in some seaweed and hatched along the way.

"This fish continues to surprise scientists with its adaptability," Engstrom explains. Lionfish can live from five to 10 years, he said.

He said the lionfish would provide an excellent teaching tool at the science center to demonstrate how an invasive species can take hold and how humans contribute to that.

"The fish tells a bunch of different stories and we are happy to have it," he says. The lionfish will be part of the Captured in Currents Exhibit at the center.

Al Bozza, program director at the New England Aquarium Dive Club, said the first wild lionfish in this part of the world was spotted about six years ago off the coast of North Carolina. They were first thought to be pets that were discarded in the ocean.

"This is significant," Bozza said about the local lionfish find. "How does a Pacific fish turn up in the Atlantic? The University of Florida has even called us for data."

Bob Michelson of Braintree, who took photos of the Benoits on their morning dive, teaches classes through the NE Aquarium Dive Club in identifying species of fish that inhabit New England waters. He said it is no surprise that Charles knew the lionfish was out of place because he had taken the class.

"It’s important for divers to know what they are looking at," Michelson explained. "Charles knew right away the fish did not belong here."

Chris Benoit, who lives on Winthrop Road, has loved snorkeling for as long as he can remember and became a certified diver last summer.

"I love everything about it," says Chris, who summers in Maine with his extended family including uncles and cousins.

So Chris, who has been interviewed on New England Cable News about the fish, took his interest in the ocean creatures a big step further last summer when he became a certified diver and was able to accompany his uncle on the Jamestown dive.

The lionfish is poisonous, something Charles Benoit knew but did not think about until he was ashore.

"About halfway in, I knew it was a lionfish that is invasive in the North Atlantic," Charles recalls. "But it did not dawn on me until I opened my hand and saw the points on its spine that is was poisonous.

"Thank goodness we had our gloves on," he said.

About Red Lionfish

On Sept. 17, 2006, the most northerly documented catch of a Red Lionfish occurred off the coast of Jamestown, R.I. (Caught by Chris Benoit of Hingham.)

Red Lionfish is an Indo-Pacific species spanning Western Australia and Malaysia east to French Polynesia, north to southern Japan and southern Korea and south to Kermadec Islands of New Zealand.

Can grow to be 12-15 ins. in length and have no documented predators.

Source: New England Aquarium Dive Club

Video clip from NECN about the story (including interviews). Another Story from The Portsmouth Herald
More info about Tropical fish collecting and invasive species from our website