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DAVIE (CBSMiami) – Hurricane season is here and that means storms and hurricanes that form this season may not only affect land negatively but also sea life.

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Hurricanes such as Andrew, Wilma and Katrina devastated communities in South Florida and other states but storms such as these also inflict damage underwater including helping to spread invasive species, such as lionfish, throughout the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

Researchers at Nova Southeastern University’s (NSU) Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography discovered that storms have a dramatic effect on ocean currents, which helps the spread of marine invasive species throughout a region. More specifically, NSU researchers looked at the distribution of lionfish in the Florida Straits. In a first-ever study in 2015, NSU research scientist Matthew Johnston, Ph.D showed how hurricane-altered ocean currents are able not only to help, but actually accelerate the invasion of a non-native marine species.

“Lionfish are pretty sedentary, so this is like creating express lanes on a superhighway,” said Dr. Johnston. “Otherwise, that’s a pretty long swim for lionfish babies to make on their own.”

Lionfish off the southeast United States, Bahamas and the Caribbean harm indigenous fish because they eat important juvenile reef species, such as grouper and snapper. Lionfish are gluttonous eaters. They eat anything it can fit in its mouth and so far, there’s nothing in the ocean that eats the lionfish. They have spines that sting anything that comes in contact with them and even sharks are afraid of them.

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The research, conducted by Johnston and NSU professor Sam Purkis, Ph.D., focused on the explosion of lionfish populations in area waters. Their findings were published in the journalGlobal Change Biology. Another NSU Halmos College professor, Richard Spieler, Ph.D., in the course of his research, was one of the first to see lionfish in Bahamian waters soon after their arrival.

Dr. Johnston said that the research focused on how large storms like hurricanes affect the flow of water in the Florida Straits. Normally, the currents represent a potential barrier to the transport of lionfish eggs and larvae across the Florida Straits. The researchers found that as a hurricane passes, the flow of water shifts from a strong, northern flow to a strong, eastern flow.

It’s these changes in flow direction and speed that likely carry lionfish larvae and eggs from Florida to the Bahamas and can explain how lionfish were able to cross the Gulf Stream so soon after their introduction to South Florida waters.

Dr. Johnston said that once they were established in the Bahamas, hurricanes allowed lionfish to spread quickly against the normal, northwestern direction of water flow in the area. In addition, the storms helped increase the spread of lionfish by approximately 45 percent and their population size by 15 percent.

“The study has broader implications in that global climate change may cause an increase in storm frequency and/or intensity, perhaps further accelerating the spread of marine invasives,” Dr. Johnston said. “Given that South Florida is a hot spot for exotic marine species, the transport of marine larvae from Florida to the Bahamas on hurricane-altered water flow may become commonplace for invasive and native species alike.”

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Johnston indicated this research has two implications. First, we need to make a concerted effort to prevent marine introductions to begin with and second, we must implement vigorous, early-detection programs to remove these exotic species before they become invasive and pose a problem. Now the team wants to take this research concept and study similar situations in the South Pacific where typhoons are common.