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Mystery of the Lionfish: Don't Blame Hurricane Andrew

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Scientists are scrambling to fight the voracious lionfish (Pterois volitans) that have invaded the Atlantic Ocean from Florida to Rhode Island to the Caribbean. But questions persist about how the fish-which are natives of the Pacific Ocean-ended up in Atlantic waters. Some have fingered Hurricane Andrew in 1992 as a possible culprit. But Walter Courtenay, a fisheries biologist and professor emeritus at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, says he would like to "put this idea to rest." Courtenay was the one who suggested a link between Andrew and the lionfish in 1995 in the Newsletter of the Introduced Fish Section, a publication of the American Fisheries Society. "It was second-hand information," says Courtenay, "which unfortunately" continues to spread, so that Andrew is often mentioned as the reason for the catastrophic lionfish invasion.

Several days after the 1992 hurricane, Courtenay's informant told him about "six to eight lionfish" had been spotted alive in Florida's Biscayne Bay. They were thought to have escaped after Andrew smashed their large aquarium, which sat on a seawall at the edge of the bay. Courtenay published the report because he wanted people to keep an eye out for the lionfish and to track their spread if they successfully established a breeding population. But he never received a report about any additional sightings. He now thinks it unlikely that this event (if it happened) led to the current invasion. Further, James Morris Jr., an ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research is in Beaufort, North Carolina, has recently discovered that a lionfish was caught as long ago as 1985 in Dania, Florida, north of Miami, "the first record of a lionfish being caught " off the Atlantic coast, he says. The "most likely vector" for all the invading lionfish, he says, was someone (or even several people) in the aquarium trade, releasing the fish and possibly eggs, into the wild.