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Rhode Island’s tropical visitors

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No one is sure how the lionfish invasion began, but Gardner notes that researchers began to notice an increase in the species after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. “Certainly lionfish were introduced into the Atlantic by someone or some group of people,” he says. They could not have swum or been carried by the current from halfway around the world. “Some people say it was an aquarium that got washed into an ocean,” he says.

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James Morris, an ecologist at the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration, notes that the “lionfish are fairly low in abundance” in northern waters and don’t pose any threat as fall nears.

While warmer-water species are increasingly found farther and farther north, tropical fish haven’t been able to establish themselves in colder climes past October and November, when the ocean temperature drops below 60 degrees F. That’s why the summer months are treasured by divers at Fort Wetherill.

The stray tropical fish lured crowds there on a recent Saturday afternoon. In one corner of the parking lot, Scott Tucker and Chris Pimley of Connecticut strapped on scuba gear. They met at this rocky cove four years ago, drawn by their love of nature and documentary filmmaking. Today, they are preparing to film tropical fish for a public-
access television show. Across the way, divers Diane Malczewski of West Greenwich, R.I., and Charlie Jennings of Fall River, Mass., sit on the back of a pickup truck and show off a jar holding a small, captured trunkfish they planned to take home.

Collecting tropical fish in Rhode Island is legal, and no permits are required, but regulations vary by state. These misplaced fish will surely perish as the cold sets in, so the New England Aquarium Dive Club (NEADC) and others try to catch the tropical fish before winter weather does. Harvesting tropical specimens this way makes ecological sense, since the fish have already been removed from their natural habitat.

Alicia Lenci, a member of the club, suits up with snorkel and fins. Floating close to shore, she scoops up a small trunkfish in a one-liter plastic bottle. For the past two years, NEADC has hosted a tropical fish hunt to collect fish and spread the word about the fishes’ annual arrival. Rhode Island even has a Tropical Fish Society, with 65 members. The club tries to rehabilitate and breed the tropical fish they catch.

Ms. Lenci, a volunteer at the rescue and rehab department at the New England Aquarium, and Michael Schruben of Everett, Mass., have been capturing tropical fish for 10 years and donating them to aquariums around New England. They keep a salt water tank full of cowfish, trunkfish, and spotfin butterflyfish and raise them until they are healthy enough to donate.

“I kind of think of it as a saving effort ... but I can’t save them all. I only have so much room in my apartment,” Mr. Schruben says,

Brian Nelson, senior aquarist at the New England Aquarium, helps transport the tropical fish from homes to tanks at the aquarium in Boston. He estimates that 15 percent of the fish in the aquarium’s four-story ocean tank came from Newport or Long Island. Visitors there and at the Atlantis Marine World Aquarium on Long Island probably don’t know that some of the exotic species were caught in their own backyard.

“It’s the North Atlantic, and people think it’s cold and dark and, there’s nothing there,” Lenci says.

But the bright tropical fish in her apartment prove otherwise.