Scientists are worried about how quickly the lionfish have colonized and spread over such a large area. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has taken several regulatory steps to promote lionfish harvests including designating the first Saturday after Mother’s Day each year to be Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day.
Invasive species like the lionfish cost the U.S. billions of dollars per year in damages, losses and measures to control them. Their native range is the South Pacific and the Indian Oceans. The first lionfish was reported in South Florida waters in 1985. They were documented as established in the early 2000’s. They have been reported along the southeastern U.S. coast from Florida to North Carolina. Juvenile lionfish have also been collected off Long Island in New York. They are known to live from Rhode Island to Belize. What is troubling to scientists is how quickly they have colonized and spread over such a large area.
Lionfish have brown or maroon and white stripes. They have sharp spines that can deliver a venomous sting that can cause pain, sweating and respiratory distress. Adults grow up to a foot long and juveniles may be as small as one inch or less. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the lionfish has no known predators in the Atlantic which has contributed to their numbers as well as their ability to release 30,000 eggs per spawn.
These invaders can be found in our reefs, mangroves and seagrass meadows. They are the first exotic species to invade coral reefs. They are voracious eaters who consume more than 50 different species, including shrimp, grouper, and lobster. Their ravenous appetite has eaten or starved out local fish and disrupted commercial fishing. Some scientists believe that lionfish are so widespread that we may not be able to reverse their effect on the ecosystems of the Western Atlantic.
In a press release the FWRI said that they hoped the Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day, through education and outreach, would encourage extra effort from the public to remove lionfish from Florida waters. They hope that consistent lionfish removal can reduce the negative impacts they have on Florida’s native wildlife and habitat as well as its reef community.
The inaugural event was held on May 16, 2015 and featured a weekend of events across the state. The FWC hosted a Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day Festival and Tournament in Pensacola and promoted several other events hosted across the state.
Additionally, FWCC has a new phone app called the Report Florida Lionfish, designed to help the state collect data and raise awareness of the dangers of this invasive species, by encouraging the public to report sightings so the fish can be removed from waterways.