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How the Lionfish Is Becoming King of the Gulf and What We Can Do About It

You’ve likely heard about the introduction and expansion within the western North Atlantic of the invasive lionfish.  You’ve read the headlines about this venomous predator from the Indo-Pacific region that’s well established along the southeastern United States, Bermuda, Bahamas, and the Caribbean, and now in the Gulf of Mexico (since at least 2010).  Lionfish have been reported along the eastern U.S. since the early 1980s, but the first verified report wasn’t until 1992, off North Carolina.  You’ve read about its propensity to cause trouble for the native reef ecosystems where it now resides.  The detrimental effects of the (likely intentional) introduction of the red lionfish (Pterois volitans), and possibly also the devil firefish (P. miles), include direct predation on native fishes, crabs, and shrimps and competition with native reef species for limited resources.  Lionfish are likely direct competitors of such species as black sea bass and certain snappers and, as a result, populations of these native predators are expected to decrease. 

Since first recorded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, lionfish populations have grown exponentially, covering most, if not all, suitable hardbottom and reef habitats along the West Florida Shelf.  In addition to direct consumption of native reef species by the lionfish, potential indirect effects caused by this introduced invasive predator include:

  • The declines of reef carnivores and reef omnivores as a result of lionfish predation is predicted to lead to increased populations of their benthic invertebrate prey (excluding shrimp).
    • This is a form of what’s called ‘trophic cascade’ effect.
  • Modest increases in populations of gray triggerfish, Vermilion snapper, and possibly tilefishes due to release from competition with other native reef carnivores.
    • This is a form of what’s called ‘competitive release’ effect.

It is currently unclear if lionfish populations in the Gulf of Mexico have reached carrying capacity (the maximum number of lionfish that the Gulf can support).  In 2013, Dauphin Island Sea Lab reported densities of lionfish on artificial reefs at 14.7 lionfish/100 m2, which was among the highest densities recorded in the western Atlantic at that time (O’Connor 2016).

What can be done to mitigate the effects of lionfish dubbing themselves King of the Gulf?  Recent research by University of Florida researchers suggests some possible ways of helping our native fishes.  Although lionfish are clearly here to stay, their numbers can be reduced somewhat through exploitation such as overfishing.  Given sufficient fishing pressure, local impacts may be partially mitigated, allowing native reef species a bit of relief, assuming the fishing pressure is kept up over time.  Here’s how you can do your part in controlling lionfish in U.S. waters:

  • Support the development of lionfish fisheries through the purchase of lionfish products at your local fish market or favorite seafood restaurant
  • Directly control introduced lionfish by spearing or capturing them within the Gulf of Mexico or western Atlantic
  • Consider contributing to a non-profit organization involved in lionfish control and research, such as Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) (www.reef.org)

The following photos of prepared lionfish dishes are meant to inspire the consumption of these beautiful, yet oh-so-invasive fish and encourage the development of a market for this species in Florida and elsewhere!

lionfish 1 FILEminimizer

lionfish 2 FILEminimizer

lionfish 3 FILEminimizer

Sources

Chagaris, D., S. Binion, A. Bogdanoff, K. Dahl, J. Granneman, H. Harris, J. Mohan, M.B. Rudd, M.K. Swenarton, R. Ahrens, M. Allen, J.A. Morris, and W.F. Patterson III.  2015.  Modeling lionfish management strategies on the West Florida Shelf: Workshop Summary and Results.  University of Florida, Gainesville, FL.

Chagaris, D., S. Binion-Rock, A. Bogdanoff, K. Dahl, J. Granneman, H. Harris, J. Mohan, M.B. Rudd, M.K. Swenarton, R. Ahrens, W.F. Patterson III, J.A. Morris Jr., and M. Allen.  2017.  An ecosystem-based approach to evaluating impacts and management of invasive lionfish. Fisheries 42:421–431.

O’Connor, R.  2016.  NISAW 2016 – An Update on the Lionfish Situation in the Panhandle.  UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Services Extension, Gainesville, FL.  Accessed online 07/24/18 at http://nwdistrict.ifas.ufl.edu/nat/2016/02/21/nisaw-2016-an-update-on-the-lionfish-situation-in-the-panhandle/

A special thank you to Momoyaki sushi restaurant in Gainesville, Florida, for being one of the few restaurants in the area to feature lionfish.  http://momoyaki.com/contact/

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