SEATTLE, Washington — July 31, 2013 — OceanGate Inc. (OGI), a global provider of deep-sea manned submersible solutions, embarked on a series of dives off the coast of South Florida in the five-person vessel, Antipodes in an effort to gauge how large the invasive lionfish problem has become below diver depths.
What scientists found was discouraging.
“The number of lionfish we saw below 300 feet was very alarming,” states Dr. Erika Montague, OGI’s Director of Science and Technology. “We did see some reduced numbers in areas where divers have been hunting on a regular basis, but below diver depths, where lionfish have no known threats, the species is thriving. At those depths, they are free to breed and feed at will.”
Scientists and specialists from the event’s host, Nova Southeastern University (NSU), along with Oregon State University (OSU), NOAA’s Marine Sanctuary Program, the University of Miami, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, all came away with the same disturbing conclusion after observing the invasive predator from the manned-submersible.
"We expected some populations of lionfish at that depth, but their numbers and size were a surprise," said Dr. Stephanie Green of Oregon State University. "It was immediately clear that this is a new frontier in the lionfish crisis, and that something is going to have to be done about it. Seeing it upclose really brought home the nature of the problem. We're no longer talking about eradication, but population suppression.”
Utilizing the OGI submersible, for the first time, scientists were able to see how native fish populations and the marine environment have been changed by the lionfish in waters not reachable by divers.
“We need something like Antipodes, a manned-submersible with a large field of view, to continue this research,” stated Dr. Tammy Frank, Associate Professor at Nova Southeastern University, emphasizing the limitations of using a remotely operated vehicle. “Using a camera on an ROV to study this problem is like using one eye to look at something through a pipe.”
Native to the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, lionfish have been increasingly affecting fisheries and tourism since they were introduced to the Atlantic Basin sometime in the early 1990s. Due to fast reproductive rates and lack of any natural predators, lionfish are able to reach a population density of 200 per acre and reduce native fish populations by up to 80 percent. This threat also extends from the marine environment to the economy as recreational saltwater fishing on Florida's east coast "generated 29,000 jobs and $3.3 billion in sales" in 2011 alone, according to NOAA.
“The lionfish problem is one of the worst things to happen to our reefs in a long time,” states Dr. Steve Gittings, NOAA’s Science Coordinator for the National Marine Sanctuary program in Washington, D.C. “One thing that stood out was how well even the smallest lionfish can use low-lying habitat like sunken tires as shelter and a feeding ground. There’s nothing to stop them from taking over if they can live on low habitat like that.”
Scientists agreed that the large lionfish seen below diver depths present a problem. Bigger fish tend to eat bigger prey, up to half their own size, and lay far more eggs more often than smaller lionfish. The use of OceanGate’s manned-submersible helped provide invaluable details and evidence like this for researchers both attending the expedition and others across the globe.
“Our expedition was an opportunity for some of the most respected marine experts in the region to come together and find a way to further science on the lionfish epidemic,” states Stockton Rush, OceanGate founder and CEO. “Lionfish are a serious threat to the ecosystems of the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean waters, and we were pleased to provide our manned submersible, Antipodes, for this research initiative and for the collaboration between organizations such as Nova Southeastern University (NSU) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission -- all of which share an interest in raising awareness and exploring methodologies for lionfish population controls.”
OceanGate first raised national awareness of the lionfish threat in 2012, during the discovery of a downed World War II Hellcat fighter aircraft. Footage of the wreck showed a dramatic number of lionfish and caught the attention of marine biologists.
Participating organizations in OGI’s Expedition Lionfish included: Broward County, Brownie’s YachtDiver Stores, ExploreOcean, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, The Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, NOAA, NSU, Oregon State University, Reef Environmental Education Foundation, and the University of Miami’s Abess Center and Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
For photographs and HD video taken from onboard the manned-submersible Antipodes during the expedition, please contact Juliana Ruiz: email@example.com
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