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).
A lionfish on display in a public aquarium.
Although they are quite beautiful, they are also skilled predators capable of eating any fish or invertebrate that will fit in their gaping mouths, and they have venomous spines that can cause serious injury to people.
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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.
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.
A lionfish spotted at Sonnier Bank
In July 2011, the first lionfish was observed in the sanctuary, at Stetson Bank.
This photograph, taken by recreational divers, shows the first lionfish sighted at Stetson Bank
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By the end of 2015, over 2,600 lionfish were observed within the sanctuary. About 1,500 of those were successfully removed and analyzed for important data.
East Flower Garden Bank
West Flower Garden Bank
Table showing the number of lionfish observations at each bank of the sanctuary from 2010 to 2015.
Graph showing the trends in lionfish sightings
at all three banks of the sanctuary from 2010 to 2015.
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Lionfish are indiscriminate 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 gulp their food whole and will eat anything that fits inside their gaping mouths. (Photo: FGBNMS/Drinnen)
Lionfish reproduce year round. Mature females release 50,000 eggs every three 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.
This lionfish was spotted in the sanctuary in August 2012. (Photo: FGBNMS/Schmahl)
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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.
Despite their distinctive coloration and markings, lionfish actually blend into their reef surroundings quite well.
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?
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.
This lionfish from Sonnier Bank was about
9.5 inches long.
To report a sighting, please submit a Lionfish Sighting Report Form (390kb pdf) or send an email , along with any photos, to firstname.lastname@example.org
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!
FGBNMS Lionfish Research - information on how we process and collect data on lionfish removed from the sanctuary.
Invasive Lionfish Portal - one stop shopping for all information on lionfish education & outreach, research & monitoring, control and management.
Lionfish Poster from Nature Conservancy
Nature Conservancy Red Lionfish Poster (86.4MB pdf)
FGBNMS Lionfish Poster (Stop the Invasion) (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
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