Lionfish: Get the Facts

Hello from America’s tropical paradise- the Florida Keys! I’m here studying local responses to invasive lionfish, mainly focusing on researchers, lobstermen, divemasters, and chefs. I’ve been getting some pretty incredible content, which you can explore further on my website: www.thelionfishproject.com. But one thing I’ve found when explaining my research to folks at home in Maryland and Virginia? Most people have never even heard of lionfish! So here’s a little FAQ to get you started with your lionfish education.

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What are lionfish anyway?

Lionfish (genus Pterois)are a carnivorous, venomous fish native to the Indo-Pacific. They are know for their red, white, or cream bands, and have 18 needle-like dorsal spines that are used for defense. Although their stings are extremely painful for humans and can cause nausea and difficulty breathing, it is rarely fatal. They can grow to over 20in in length and can live over 15 years. Lionfish mostly prey on small fish and invertebrates, but will eat a wide variety of prey and are highly adaptable to new environments. Due to their exotic and eye-catching appearance, they are also a popular favorite in the aquarium trade worldwide.

When and how were they introduced in the United States?

Although it was suggested that lionfish were introduced after a few specimens were released in South Florida following Hurricane Andrew in 1992, genetic evidence suggests the invasion originated from the personal aquarium trade. They have been spotted as far both as North Carolina, most likely thanks to travel along the Gulf Stream current, but they are physically unable to establish a population much further north due to the inability to adapt to colder winter temperatures.

Why are people so concerned about them? How can they hurt the reef?

With no natural predators and a voracious appetite, unchecked growth of lionfish populations could decimate numbers of native coral reef fish. Dense lionfish populations can consume over 460,000 prey fish per acre per year! They also compete for prey with commercially and culturally important fish such as grouper. They are also breeding machines- one female lionfish can produce over 2 million eggs in just one year. Plus, more lionfish in Atlantic waters means an increase rate of stings- something no tourist or local wants to hear.

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How are they being controlled?

Unfortunately, many scientists believe that complete eradication of lionfish is impossible. They can, however, be controlled. Research is being conducting all throughout the US Southern Atlantic coast and the Caribbean ocean to determine the effects of lionfish presence on the ecosystem. Many Caribbean islands have legalized spearfishing for lionfish, and you can catch lionfish without a permit in Florida. Lionfish derbies, or large fishing competitions where prizes are awarded for bringing in large numbers of the fish, have popped up all over Florida and the Caribbean. Bermuda even enacted a strict ban on the importation of live fish to try and prevent another invasion.

What can I do to help?

Get informed and spread the word! The more people are aware of the invasion, the better. If traveling in lionfish-infested areas, support chefs and restaurants that serve lionfish on their menus. And as always, choose to purchase seafood that is sustainable and healthy for the environment (for which fish to eat and avoid, check out the Sustainable Seafood Guide). You can also support organizations working to control lionfish populations, such as The Lionfish Hunters.

Comments

  1. dthiggins says:

    This is an interesting topic to study. Being from Virginia, I’ve never seen a lionfish but I do remember learning about them at one point. I never realized they were such a problem for reducing the populations of coral reef fish, though. Do scientists believe that eradication is impossible because of their high rate of breeding? Or are there other factors that make it difficult to control the population size? Reading this post reminded me of the snakehead outbreak around the Potomac/Chesapeake Bay a few years ago, during which the government offered a bounty for their capture. It’s a shame that so many introductions of harmful species are the result of careless personal aquarium trade.

  2. I found your post really interesting! I have a friend who recently moved to Cuba and posted some pictures of her spearfishing for lionfish. I was initially shocked that she had no qualms about killing lots of beautiful fish, but after reading up on the topic myself I understand the need to control the lionfish population.
    Just curious, what would you say is the most effective strategy to get rid of this invasive species?