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The Truth About Getting Stung by a Lionfish

Posted by Erin Spencer in Explorers Journal on August 8, 2013

“It won’t kill you, but it’ll make you wish you were dead”.

That’s how Mike Ryan described a lionfish sting as he briefed a boat full of people before an afternoon dive. Mike, an instructor at Horizon Divers in Key Largo, developed the Lionfish Safari Diver course for recreational divers to learn about invasive lionfish and try their hand at hunting the fish themselves. For a group of inexperienced hunters, that was probably the last thing we wanted to hear.

That wasn’t the first time someone warned me about the stings of this invasive predator. When you’re dealing with lionfish, the topic is bound to come up. In almost every interview I conducted, the conversation eventually turned to a dramatically recounted story of the time (or times) the interviewee was stung, each tale more cringe-worthy than the last. And while it’s clear that getting pricked by a lionfish is no walk in the park, stings can be easily avoided by proper handling techniques and safety measures. Be sure to keep the following three things in mind when dealing with lionfish to decrease your risk of getting stung.

Lionfish stings can occur long after the fish has died. Photo by Erin Spencer.

Lionfish stings can occur long after the fish has died. Photo by Erin Spencer.

Lionfish spines are used defensively, not offensively.

Lionfish spines are used as a deterrent for predators rather than for hunting prey. So don’t worry- lionfish aren’t about to ambush unsuspecting divers or swimmers. Lionfish only use their weapons defensively; therefore simply steering clear of their venomous dorsal, ventral, and anal spines can avoid stings.

If you are stung, a loose sheath surrounding each spine is pushed down, compressing two venom glands located down then length of the spine. Neurotoxic venom then travels through two parallel grooves up the spine and into the wound. Sounds unpleasant, right? Better just to avoid the spines in the first place.

Lionfish safety applies both on and off the water. 

The overwhelming majority of lionfish stings result from people simply not paying attention.

Stings can occur even after the lionfish is dead.

Stings can occur even after the fish have died, so handlers should be aware of their lionfish at all times, whether they are underwater, on a boat, or back in the kitchen filleting the fish up for dinner. I heard many stories of victims unknowingly sticking their hands into coolers containing lionfish and finding a painful surprise inside.

 

So make sure everyone you’re with knows where the lionfish are located, as well as which of the fishes’ spines are dangerous. Some handlers (myself included) choose to use medical-grade puncture-proof gloves to help protect from stings. Although these gloves don’t protect all potential sting sites, they decrease the risk of accidental envemonation when handling the fish.

Puncture-proof gloves are a great way to decrease your risk of getting stung. Photo by Eric Billips

Puncture-proof gloves are a great way to decrease your risk of getting stung. Photo by Eric Billips

Just in case, know what to do if you get stung.

Even if you follow all the safety precautions, sometimes mistakes happen. Immediate first response can help decrease pain and swelling, so have a plan in place if you or anyone you’re with is going to be handling lionfish. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommends immersing the wound in hot (but not scalding) water for about 30 minutes as soon as possible after the sting occurs – this helps denature the lionfish venom and decrease pain.

If necessary, remove any spines still located in the wound. Lionfish stings are rarely fatal, but in extreme cases nausea, vomiting, and allergic reactions can result, so monitor symptoms closely. One spear fisherman swore that if someone had offered to amputate his stung foot, he would have accepted the invitation gladly.

On the other hand, a divemaster I spoke with said he barely noticed the pain when he was stung, and didn’t experience any swelling or adverse effects. Ultimately, everyone seems to respond to stings differently. Most people I talked to experienced some pain and swelling for anywhere from a few hours to a few days.

The important thing to remember is this: the more you know about stings, the more effectively you can prevent them. Pay attention to your lionfish at all times and have a plan in place in case you or a friend gets stung. There are quite a few examples of people who have dealt with large quantities of lionfish and have never been stung, proving that with proper handling and a bit of luck, you can avoid envenomation. But remember, on the off chance you do get pricked, you’ll at least have a great lionfish war-story to tell your friends.

http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com

Lionfish continue to populate, pose threats to coral reefs

By Annie Chambers..U.S. Army Corp of Engineers Jacksonville District

Their dorsal spines and zebra-like bodies may draw one in for a closer look. Commonly used in aquariums for show, the invasive lionfish has made its way from the South Pacific and Indian Oceans to the east coast. In the past decade, they’ve been rapidly expanding from Florida to North Carolina, as well as the Caribbean.

A red lionfish swims in the Atlantic Ocean. The aquarium trade is the most likely explanation for the invasion of the lionfish in the Atlantic Ocean.

Lionfish may live longer than 15 years and reach sizes exceeding 20 inches. Their venomous spines are capable of fending off predators and stinging humans, according to the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), an active organization of divers and marine enthusiasts. Lionfish reproduce throughout the year, nearly every four days, and females can spawn over 2 million eggs per year.

Lionfish are venomous and have up to 18 needle-like spines.  However, the meat of the lionfish is not poisonous. If stung, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommends treating a puncture wound by immersing it in hot water for 30-90 minutes, and seeking medical attention as soon as possible. The Poison Help Hotline at 1-800-222-1222 is available 24 hours a day.

Coral reef community population structure and dynamics are at risk as a result of the influx of lionfish. These predators out-compete other species such as fish and invertebrates for food resources and they have few known predators, according to NOAA’s Coral Reef Information System (CORIS) website.

NOAA’s experts believe that lionfish populations will continue to grow and are unable to be controlled with conventional methods. Lionfish are established along the southeastern coast of the United States, Bermuda, the Bahamas and throughout the Caribbean.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recently waived the recreational fishing license requirement to harvest lionfish. The change allows divers to easily assist in the control of the lionfish population. This will allow people to take as many of the invasive fish as possible.
NOAA and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) as well as professional and recreational diving communities are working to help remove and control lionfish. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission encourages people to remove lionfish; they can be speared, caught in hand-held nets or caught on hook and line. Lionfish can be reported to REEF’s

Photo: NOAA

LionFish-kit

Big Lionfish Found at Disturbing Depths

LiveScience.com

by Megan Gannon, News Editor July 14, 2013NatureFlorida
Big Lionfish Found at Disturbing Depths

Lionfish gather near the doorway of this sunken ship, the Bill Boyd, in this image taken by researchers …

The relentless scourge of lionfish has crept to unexpected depths: Off the coast of Florida, researchers say they found the venomous invader thriving around a sunken ship at 300 feet (91 meters) below the water’s surface.

“We expected some populations of lionfish at that depth, but their numbers and size were a surprise,” researcher Stephanie Green, of Oregon State University, said in a statement.

Last month, Green and colleagues investigated the seafloor near Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in a deep-diving Antipodes sub. At 300 feet (91 m) deep, the team witnessed a large number of the spiny fish near the intentionally sunken Bill Boyd cargo ship, an artificial reef created in 1986. [See Photos of Lionfish & Other Freaky Fish]

While lionfish are typically between 12 and 15 inches (30 to 38 centimeters) long, the Oregon State researchers say they saw unusually large specimens as big as 16 inches (40 cm) long.

“This was kind of an ‘Ah hah!’ moment,” Green said. “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 up-close really brought home the nature of the problem.”

Big Lionfish Found at Disturbing Depths
A popular aquarium fish and invasive predator, lionfish have a fan of soft, waving fins and venomous …

Native to tropical Indo-Pacific waters, lionfish were introduced to the Atlantic by humans in the 1990s, likely through the exotic pet trade. Now found in reefs from North Carolina to South America, the rapidly reproducing invasive fish have voracious appetites, gobbling up native fish and competing with other species for food resources.

Worse, lionfish have no natural enemies in Atlantic waters, except spear gun-toting humans. Another study, detailed online July 11 in the journal PLOS ONE, found that not even sharks can curb red lionfish populations in Caribbean reefs.

Researchers are trying to figure out what is keeping lionfish in check in the Pacific so that they might stem the Atlantic invasion, which thus far has looked to be unstoppable. Prepared correctly, lionfish are said to make a tasty meal, but one prick from the fish’s venomous spine can cause excruciating pain. Lionfish derbies to bring in big catches of the predator have been held in Florida and the Caribbean.

“A lionfish will eat almost any fish smaller than it is,” Green said in a statement. “Regarding the large fish we observed in the submersible dives, a real concern is that they could migrate to shallower depths as well and eat many of the fish there. And the control measures we’re using at shallower depths — catch them and let people eat them — are not as practical at great depth.”

Lionfish also can produce far more offspring when they are large. A big, mature female in some species can have up to 10 times as many offspring as a female that’s half its size, researchers say.