Alien lionfish swarm N.C. coast

A handful of ravenous, venomous lionfish, a species native to the western Pacific, were spotted off North Carolina in 2000. Turns out they like it here. A lot.

The lionfish population has exploded at a pace unlike anything scientists have ever seen from an invasive fish species in this part of the world. They are appearing in huge numbers from here southward into the Caribbean and are so plentiful that divers off the North Carolina coast routinely find up to 100 on a single shipwreck.

"If you go deeper than 100 feet, they're ubiquitous now," said Paula Whitfield, a researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Beaufort. "They're absolutely everywhere."

Little research has been done on lionfish, and researchers at NOAA's Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research in Beaufort are rapidly becoming some of the world's leading experts as they respond to worried fisheries managers. It's feared that the newcomers are making life harder for already struggling popular commercial reef fish such as grouper and snapper by stealing their food, seizing their turf and eating their young.

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