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Lionfish (Pterois volitans, Pterois miles), venomous fishes native to the Indo-Pacific and Red Sea, are the first invasive species of fish to establish themselves in the Western Atlantic (Schofield 2009).

Lionfish in an aquarium
A lionfish on display in a public aquarium.
Photo: FGBNMS/Drinnen

Although they are quite beautiful, they are also skilled predators capable of eating any fish or invertebrate their size or smaller, and they have venomous spines that can cause serious injury to people.

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The Invasion

The first lionfish recorded in the Western Atlantic (east coast of the United States, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico) was a specimen captured near Dania, Florida in 1985. No other lionfish sightings were reported until 1992. The most likely source of these fish was the home aquarium trade.

At first, the spread of the lionfish population was rather gradual, but in 2000 the number of sightings began to increase exponentially. By 2009, lionfish were pretty well established along the Atlantic coast and throughout the Caribbean.

Map showing distribution of lionfish along the east coast of the U.S. in 2003
Click on this map to see an animated version that shows the spread of lionfish from 1985 forward.

In 2010, sightings were also recorded in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico, along the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Lionfish on a reef
A lionfish spotted at Sonnier Bank

In July 2011, the first lionfish was observed in the sanctuary, at Stetson Bank.

A lionfish on the reef
This photograph, taken by recreational divers, shows the first lionfish sighted at Stetson Bank

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By the end of 2014, over 1100 lionfish were observed within the sanctuary. About 50% of those were successfully removed and analyzed for gut contents.

Stetson Bank
East Flower Garden Bank
West Flower Garden Bank
0 0 0
11 4 2
30 40 105
73 139 252
2014 31 174 324

Lionfish Totals

145 357 683
Table showing the number of lionfish observations at each bank of the sanctuary from 2010 to 2014.

Line graphic showing rise in number of lionfish observations at all three banks within Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary from 2010-2013, and a slight decrease in sightings at Stetson Bank in 2014.
Graph showing the trends in lionfish sightings
at all three banks of the sanctuary from 2010 to 2014.

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The Problems

Lionfish are indiscrimate eaters. If it fits in their mouths, they will eat it! This includes many smaller species of fish and invertebrates, as well as the young of commercially important fish species, including snapper and grouper. Not only can this affect the balance of the local food chain, but it may also impact fisheries.

Lionfish head with mouth gaping sitting on a cutting board next to a damselfish that was removed from its stomach to show how wide the mouth gapes to swallow prey whole.
Lionfish gulp their food whole and will eat anything that fits inside their gaping mouths. (Photo: FGBNMS/Drinnen)

Lionfish reproduce year round. Mature females release 20,000-30,000 eggs every four days. Most reef fishes only spawn once a year, so lionfish may quickly outnumber native fish populations.

Lionfish have venomous spines. An encounter with a lionfish may have painful consequences.

Lionfish in the sanctuary.
This lionfish was spotted in the sanctuary in August 2012. (Photo: FGBNMS/Schmahl)

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The Response

Experts say it is unlikely that we will ever be able to completely eliminate lionfish from the Western Atlantic. So, the objective now is to minimize their impact on sanctuary resources.

At this time, sanctuary policy is to remove any lionfish encountered. Research has shown that targeted removals in localized areas can be an effective control mechanism.

Permits for removal of lionfish have been issued to the recreational dive charters that frequent the sanctuary, to assist us in this effort.

Permits were also issued for a sanctuary managed Lionfish Invitational that was held for the first time in September 2015. This derby-like event allowed recreational divers to assist in a mass removal and survey effort.

Without appropriate permits, sanctuary regulations only allow for removal of lionfish by traditional hook and line fishing methods.

Lionfish on the reef at Flower Garden Banks.
Despite their distinctinve coloration and markings, lionfish actually blend into their reef surroundings quite well.
Photo: FGBNMS/Schmahl

Most of the lionfish removed from the sanctuary are dissected and evaluated as part of ongoing research to learn more about invasive lionfish populations.

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How Can You Help?

Stop the Invasion lionfish poster showing silhouette of a lionfish with pictures of other fish inside
Sanctuary lionfish poster designed by high school student Denise Kwong

FGBNMS Lionfish Poster (1.8MB pdf)

1. Make sure you aren't part of the problem. DO NOT release non-native species of any kind into your local ecosystem. Not all will survive, but those that do become established can wreak havoc. Lionfish are just one example.

2. Help us monitor the situation by reporting any lionfish sightings. Please include the date, time and location of the sighting as well as the size of the lionfish and any other information you can gather about the habitat or the behavior of the fish.

A dead lionfish lying next to a ruler to show size
This lionfish from Sonnier Bank was about 9.5 inches long.
Photo: FGBNMS/Embesi

To report a sighting, please submit a Lionfish Sighting Report Form (390kb pdf) or send an email , along with any photos, to

3. Participate in removal events in places where they occur. Derbies are hosted at regular intervals in the Florida Keys and many other Caribbean locations. FGBNMS hosted their first Lionfish Invitational in September 2015.

4. Spread the word!

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More Information

Invasive Lionfish Portal - one stop shopping for all information on lionfish education & outreach, research & monitoring, control and management.

Image of Nature Conservancy poster about lionfish
Lionfish Poster from Nature Conservancy

Nature Conservancy Red Lionfish Poster (86.4MB pdf)

FGBNMS Lionfish Poster (1.8MB pdf)

Indo-Pacific Lionfish (Pterois volitans/miles) Invade the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Northwest Gulf of Mexico (3MB pdf)
- poster presented by Michelle Johnston at GCFI 2013

NOS Lionfish Invasion Part I: Covering New Ground (podcast)

NOS Lionfish Invasion Part II: Controlling the Spread (podcast)

NCCOS Invasive Lionfish Information

USGS Lionfish Fact Sheet

REEF Lionfish Research Program

NOAA Lionfish Press Release from August 15, 2011 (35kb pdf)

General Invasive Species Information

Invasive Cup Coral

click on the > to play

This discussion was part of a presentation on invasive species that was given by Dr. Michelle Johnston during the sanctuary's Seaside Chat series in 2012. (3:21)

For a full transcript of the presentation, please visit our Fish Videos page.

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