Most of you have probably heard about, or seen, the lionfish by now; but let’s start from the beginning of the invasion. Invasive lionfish (Pterois volitans and P. miles) have spread from their native range in the western Pacific and Indian Oceans to aquariums around the world because of their desirability as an aquarium fish. Throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s, lionfish have progressed from a few introduced individuals in south Florida (by careless aquarists) to establishing themselves northward in the South Atlantic Bight, the Caribbean Sea and, more recently (2010), the Gulf of Mexico. Lionfish in the Indo-Pacific are medium sized reef fish, reaching 9 inches on average and are notorious for their venomous dorsal, anal, and pelvic spines. The venom can deliver a very painful injury to the unwary, so care must be taking when approaching and handling this species (picture below).
Since lionfish are not native to this region, predatory marine animals and parasites have been slow to identify lionfish as a potential host or food source. Other characteristics that have led to the success of this species are its’ enormous, unspecified appetite and fast growth rate. Lionfish in their invaded range become sexually mature, and can reach sizes up to 10 inches, within their first year. Unlike other native species like snapper, grouper, and jacks, that only spawn a few months out of the year, lionfish can spawn year-round and undergo distant larval dispersal, the main reasons for their rapid spread and establishment. Lionfish have reached higher densities and larger sizes in their invaded range, as well as expanded from shallow patch reef habitat to seagrass, mangrove, estuaries, deep reefs (~1000ft), artificial structures, and hard bottom habitats.
Unfortunately, almost nothing is known about the potential impacts this invasive species could have on indigenous organisms residing in Florida’s coastal waters. Studies in the Caribbean suggest lionfish can diminish native species recruitment by 80% and biomass by 60%. It is unclear if these startling statistics are applicable to our commercially and recreationally important species here in the U.S., which are already under a great amount of stress. Alex Fogg, a Masters student at the University of Southern Mississippi and MaryKate Swenarton, a Masters student at the University of North Florida, are both working concurrently to better describe lionfish life history in their given study regions (Gulf of Mexico and the southern South Atlantic Bight respectively). This information, especially diet data, will provide regional fisheries managers with accurate information on fisheries impacts and reproductive and growth data will provide recommendations for removal and mitigation. Our research relies heavily on recreational divers for sample collection; divers spear lionfish for sport, for the current market (limited), and in lionfish hunting competitions called derbies. Derbies are a great way for different stakeholders to become involved in the removal of this destructive species, while competing for prizes and consuming this delicious fish. For more on derbies coming up in Florida see www.reef.org/lionfish/derbies and eat more lionfish!
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