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Lionfish Invasion

The Pacific lionfish is stinging the Atlantic.

By David Alderton | Posted: November 5, 2008, 7 p.m. EST

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Pacific red lionfish
One of the invading lionfish photographed in the Bahamas. Photo by mhedstrom.
Hurricane Andrew was the second most powerful storm to blast the U.S. mainland during the last century. But few Florida residents who experienced this dramatic event late in August 1992 would have anticipated that the legacy of its destructive strength would still be growing in the Caribbean waters.

When waves caused by Hurricane Andrew wrecked a waterfront aquarium, six Pacific red lionfish (Pterois volitans) were washed away. Once the storm subsided, the surviving fish found life to their liking in the Atlantic Ocean – before starting to breed in the waters of Biscayne Bay.

These lionfish have now become a cause of concern to some zoologists monitoring the reefs. Lad Akins, director of special projects for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (Reef) believes this species has the potential to cause “a severe impact across our entire marine ecosystem.”

Although no one can be absolutely sure of the origins of all of the growing lionfish population in the Atlantic, DNA investigations suggest that the entire population is descended from just three separate females.

Part of the problem on these reefs is that these lionfish will eat almost anything. Atlantic fish have never encountered anything like them before. Smaller fish don’t recognize the lionfish as a potential danger until it is too late, while possible predators are scared off. This may be the result of the lionfish’s venomous spines, aside from its disguised appearance.

Divers are reporting regular sightings of Pacific lionfish in Atlantic waters, where their population has risen almost tenfold between 2004 and 2008. Their range is extending, and they have now reached the Bahamas and even Bermuda, as well as the coast of North Carolina.

A particular difficulty in curbing their numbers is their huge reproductive potential. In Florida’s warm waters, an individual female may release thousands of eggs every week throughout the year. The young lionfish themselves are mature within a year. Desperate to curb this growing menace, both zoologists and fishermen are now touting Pacific lionfish as a gourmet dish, until such time as a wild predator develops an appetite for them.

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Reader Comments

Baruch    Cancun, CA

12/9/2009 11:08:47 AM

Another thing we have to stress out in here, is the fact that the importing and sell of exotic species (doesnt matter if marine or freshwater, or terrestrial)should not be encouraged/promoted. There are many examples wordwide that show the huge impact these species have on other fauna populations and bassically on the environment. Dont keep buying/selling exotic species! Ban exotic species commerce!

Armand    troy, MI

2/5/2009 2:31:43 PM

Ouch. Trust me, it is not fun to get stung by one of those!

mel    malibu, CA

1/30/2009 5:46:14 AM

Great article!

Lad    Key Largo, FL

12/29/2008 6:39:05 AM

HI David, Quincy and all,

Thought I'd chime in briefly on this issue as we have been working in close partnerships with NOAA, USGS, the National Aquarium in DC, the Bermuda Aquarium, Simon Fraser University, and others, conducting research and removal efforts in the Bahamas since 2006. David, Thanks for getting the word out - that's half the battle!

A few quick corrections then a comment...
First, the release of the fish following hurricane Andrew is popular as it is the first report in published literature, however, there are reports of lionfish from SE FL prior to 1992. In addition, genetics work by Wilson Freshwater at UNCW, indicates more than just 6 founding fish that were reported from the hurricane event. (not many more, but more).

As far as the Atlantis theory goes, evidence just does not support this theory. There are many reports of lionfish along the East Coast of the US prior to the opening of Atlantis and Freshwater's work also does not support two separate releases.

In addition, the reproductive biology DOES allow for the likelihood of a Gulfstream crossing. The fish were able make it all the way out to Bermuda (600 miles from the nearest land!), so a mere 50 mile crossing would not be an issue. If you look at the progression of the fish down through the Caribbean (LINK you'll see other significant crossings including one not yet on the map - Belize.

The big issue is that we will never be able to concisely determine the point and date of release. What we can do is support efforts to research and control the populations. As David mentions, lionfish are very good eating fish and markets are currently being developed in the Bahamas and Bermuda. REEF is also conducting research and removal projects throughout the Caribbean including a project in Turks and Caicos next month, research this winter in the Bahamas and a project in Belize in June.

I'm happy to answer more questions or provide more info to anyone interested in the issue. In the mean time, report all sightings to LINK and eat more lionfish!

Best Fishes,
Lad Akins, Director of Special Projects
Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF)

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