Lionfish Invade Our Waters

Scientists are worried about how quickly the lionfish have colonized and spread over such a large area.

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 spawn year round and spread.

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.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission intend to adopt four measures to address the problem.  They proposed a prohibition on the import of lionfish for the aquarium trade.  A ban on lionfish in aquaculture.  The introduction of lionfish fishing derbies in protected areas previously off limits to spearfishing.  Lastly, letting divers in pursuit of lionfish use previously banned equipment that enables them to stay underwater longer.  The Florida legislature has allocated $427,000 to start a bounty program that would be administered by FFWC if the legislation is signed by the Governor.  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.

Lionfish roundups have been happening for several years in the Florida Keys.  They have proven successful in removing these invasive fish from local reefs and holding down populations.  In April, a Southwest Florida Lionfish Derby was held.  The first and second place winners killed 100 of the fish on a wreck found 25 miles off Anna Maria.

In addition to these actions many people are trying to get a market going for the tasty meat found beneath the fish’s spine.  At a lionfish summit last fall a recommendation was made to include the lionfish in the state’s “Fresh from Florida” promotion.

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