Venomous lionfish that are being found increasingly along the South Atlantic coast have become a painful reality for some divers from Florida to the Carolinas.
Twice in the past month the U.S. Coast Guard in Charleston has received calls from divers who were stung by the tropical fish, the agency reports.
In an incident last week, a diver who was 30 miles off Murrells Inlet suffered a sting behind his ear while exploring the depths. The man, who was 31, was rushed to a coastal hospital and was in stable condition after one of the fish's poison-tipped spines struck him.
A diver in early May also called for help from a spot 100 miles off the Georgia coast, said Coast Guard spokesman Anthony Kozak.
A sting from a lionfish is nothing to dismiss. Stings can be felt for days, causing victims to sweat, have difficulty breathing and, in extreme cases, become paralyzed.. Federal officials encourage anyone stung by a lionfish to seek immediate medical attention.
Kozak said the diver who encountered a lionfish off of Georgia called the Coast Guard for help after a spine struck him on the finger. The man had been spearfishing.
"It is excruciating,'' Kozak said. "We could hear the guy over the radio. He was in extreme pain.''
It was not immediately known how many lionfish stings have been reported in South Atlantic states, but news reports show a number in recent years.
In 2016, a diver in Florida had to be rushed to the hospital after a lionfish stung him while he was in 100 feet of water near Boca Raton. Last year, a Pensacola diver suffered severe blisters on his leg after a lionfish sting.
Lionfish have been found in waters as deep as several hundred feet and as shallow as 1 foot, but S.C. Department of Natural Resources spokesman Phil Maier said it's unlikely beach vacationers will encounter lionfish in the shallow surf. Maier said he knows of one other sting in South Carolina, an incident that occurred in deep water nearly a decade ago.
In many cases, divers stung by lionfish were hunting the animals, Maier said. While lionfish have venomous spines, their meat is nontoxic. Restaurants have begun to serve lionfish, he said.
"You see the fish offshore in deep water, so these are not posing a threat to our beachgoers,'' he said. "If you look down into Florida, it's a more common event. Divers there prepare for it. Some of them target these fish.''
Lionfish are colorful, easy to recognize creatures that can grow to more than 1.5 feet long. They have zebra-like stripes of brown, maroon and white, with wide, fan-like pectoral fins and more than a dozen sharp spines.
Nobody is sure why lionfish — a tropical species native to the Indian and South Pacific oceans — are showing up along the South Atlantic coast, but one theory is that some of the fish were released from aquariums and began to multiply. The first lionfish were spotted in Florida in the mid-1980s and had reached the Carolinas by 2000, research shows.
Climate change may be a compounding factor in their presence off South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina. Rising ocean temperatures could be bringing lionfish north from Florida, some scientists say. Research in North Carolina found a connection between warm winters and how dense lionfish populations were in the waters off of that state, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"As more shallow waters warm as a result of climate change, lionfish and other invasive species may expand their range and begin affecting presently untouched ecosystems,'' NOAA reports.
Some scientists and state officials are concerned about lionfish along the South Atlantic coast because the creatures are voracious predators that eventually could hurt native populations of fish and other marine animals. Lionfish have few known predators and reproduce all year, according to NOAA.
Some states, such as Florida, encourage divers and fisherman to kill as many lionfish as they encounter.
"Often referred to as the worst marine invasion to date, lionfish have the potential to alter the population dynamics of our native marine species,'' according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.