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Education

INVASIVE LIONFISH

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 to see, they are 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.

Lionfish on a reef
One of the lionfish spotted at Sonnier Bank in March 2011

In 2010, sightings were also recorded in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico, along the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. By October 2010, lionfish were recorded at Sonnier Bank, about 60 miles east of East Flower Garden Bank (EFGB).

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

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 2013, over 650 lionfish were observed within the sanctuary. About 50% of those were successfully removed and analyzed for gut contents.

Stetson
EFGB
WFGB
2010
0 0 0
2011
11 4 2
2012
30 40 105
2013
73 139 252
Totals 114 183 359
Table showing the number of lionfish observations at each bank of the sanctuary, by year, from 2010 to 2013.

Line graphic showing rise in number of lionfish observations at all three banks within Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary
Graph showing the dramatic rise in lionfish sightings
at all three banks of the sanctuary from 2010 to 2013.

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The Concerns

Based on research so far, these are the primary concerns raised by the lionfish invasion.

  1. 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 larger fish species, including snapper and grouper. Not only can this affect the balance of the local food chain, but it may also impact fisheries.
  2. Lionfish reproduce year round. Most reef fishes only spawn once a year, so lionfish may quickly outnumber native fish populations.
  3. Lionfish have venomous spines. An encounter with a lionfish may have painful consequences for a fisher or diver.

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.

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

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How Can You Help?

You can 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) and any photos to flowergarden@noaa.gov

Plans are underway for a Lionfish Invitational in the fall of 2014. Details of the event will be shared as they become available.

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More Information

Image of Nature Conservancy poster about lionfish

Nature Conservancy Red Lionfish Poster (86.4MB 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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