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. 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.
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. By October 2010, lionfish were recorded at Sonnier Bank, about 60 miles east of East Flower Garden Bank (EFGB).
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
Based on research so far, these are the primary concerns raised by the lionfish invasion.
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 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.
This lionfish was spotted in the sanctuary in August 2012. (Photo: FGBNMS/Schmahl)
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 distinctinve coloration and markings, lionfish actually blend into their reef surroundings quite well. Photo: FGBNMS/Schmahl
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 who 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. Photo: FGBNMS/Embesi
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.