Divers have reported capturing hundreds of venomous lionfish swimming in the seas off New York's Long Island this summer, providing evidence to suggest that the non-native fish has been breeding in the area.
According to a report from the New York Times, divers have caught hundreds of lionfish this year, compared to a total of 30 over the past three years. The species is normally found in the tropical Pacific Ocean, far away from the comparatively cooler waters of Long Island.
Todd Gardner, a biologist at Atlantis Marine World aquarium, and a specialist in the area's lionfish, told the New York Times: "There must be many, there must be thousands and thousands more out there. It's a population explosion."
Gardner has a number of baby lionfish collected in the area in an exhibit at the aquarium and expects that the remaining young currently at sea will die off when the temperatures drop below 10°C/50°F this autumn.
It's not known how the lionfish came to be living off the US coast. The species was first recorded in Florida in the mid-1990s, followed by further sightings in Georgia and the Carolinas. Some experts have suggested that the fish may have been swept off course by the Gulf Stream.
Gardner, while a graduate student, was the first to record lionfish off this part of the US coast when he found a tiny specimen on a piling in the Great South Bay by Fire Island, says the report.
"I was absolutely shocked", Gardner told the New York Times. "How could there be a lionfish living here in New York? It was just not registering, not making sense."
Initially, Gardner's professor dismissed the find as a prank, but Gardner followed the find up with an additional specimen shortly afterwards of a size too small to be sold in the aquarium trade.
Gardner says that he has not caught more than a dozen of the fish per year until this year: "They're very easy to catch. I don't even use a net, because they don't scare very easy, because they have such an effective defense system. I just carry a Ziploc bag and scoop them up."