Lionfish: A Crash Course

There’s big news in the fight against invasive lionfish. This week, Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida’s 26th District introduced a bill that would make more funding available for researchers studying lionfish in their invaded range. The bill directs the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to award $1,500,000 in higher education grants to combat lionfish, including projects that help us learn about lionfish impacts and how to mitigate them.

In honor of this newly-introduced bill, we pulled together a refresher course on the lionfish invasion. Read on to see how lionfish are impacting the ecosystem (and what people are doing about it!)

Where are lionfish from?

Originally from the Indo-Pacific, lionfish were introduced off the coast of South Florida in the mid-1980s and have since become one of the most prolific invasive marine species in the world. They can now be found on coral reefs, shipwrecks, mangroves, seagrass beds and hard ocean bottoms throughout the western Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

Why are lionfish a problem?

Lionfish are the “Hoover vacuums of the sea”, and dense lionfish populations can consume up to 460,000 prey fish per acre per year. Lionfish consume over 70 different species of fish and invertebrates, some of which are ecologically and economically important in the invaded range, including juvenile grouper and snapper. With no natural predators in the invaded range and very high breeding rates (one female can spawn over 2 million eggs per year!), lionfish have spread rapidly and their range continues to expand.

Distinguished by their bold stripes and spines, lionfish are a favorite in the aquarium industry. But be careful — their spines are venomous, and contain a strong neurotoxin that can cause extreme pain and swelling if injected.

What are people doing about lionfish?

Fortunately, people are fighting back. Consistent local removal efforts can greatly reduce lionfish populations, allowing native fish to rebound. The Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) launched a series of lionfish derbies, or all-day fishing competitions, to help decrease numbers while raising awareness about the problem. This model has been replicated in many places throughout the invaded range, and also helps provide samples for research by bringing in large amounts of fish.

Lionfish are also delicious, and many people are adopting the “gotta eat ‘em to beat ‘em” mentality. Their white, buttery meat lends itself to any number of different recipes, and many restaurants throughout the Caribbean and southern United States are featuring lionfish on their menus to promote awareness while satisfying customers.

There is still much we can learn about lionfish to help research efforts. Representative Curbelo’s bill will help us mitigate the impacts of lionfish and work towards a healthier ocean.

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