Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary
Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary
Gray's Reef Expedition 2012
Mission Information

Lionfish Surveys and Removal

Monitoring for lionfish at Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary is being conducted to better understand the impacts this invasive species may be having on sanctuary resources.

Dr. Michelle Johnston, removes a lionfish using a spear pole

Research and scientific diver, Dr. Michelle Johnston, removes a lionfish using a spear pole, gloves, and plastic handling bag.

Although the threats of introduced species to habitats they colonize is often unknown beforehand, some can have serious detrimental impacts, such as competition with native species for food and space, alteration of habitat, and predation on native species. The National Marine Sanctuaries has been witness to the invasion of the lionfish, which is thought to have been introduced to the east coast through aquarium "dumping," given that they are popular ornamental fish. Lionfish (Pterois volitans/miles), formerly residents of the western Pacific, Red Sea, and eastern Indian Oceans only, were first reported in the 1980s along south Florida and are now well established along the Southeast U.S., Caribbean, Bahamas, and Gulf of Mexico.

Venomous species adorn the invasive lionfishh

 Venomous spines adorn the invasive lionfish.

Lionfish have distinctive maroon and white zebra stripes; fleshy tentacles above the eyes and mouth; fan-like pectoral fins, and a plume of dorsal, pelvic, and anal spines that are all venomous and can cause extreme pain. They live in all habitat types, from shallow mangroves and rocky outcrops, to coral reefs and artificial substrates as deep as 500 feet below the surface. Lionfish may live decades and reach sizes up to 20 inches. They reproduce year round, and since most reef fishes only spawn once a year, lionfish may quickly outnumber native reef fish populations. Lionfish are also indiscriminate ambush predators, and once they invade an area, they can be considered one of the top predators in many coral reef environments in the Atlantic and Caribbean region. Their diet includes many smaller species of fish and invertebrates, as well as the juveniles of the larger fish species, including commercially and recreationally important snapper and grouper. Not only can this affect the balance of the local food chain by altering the structure of native reef fish communities by out-competing native reef organisms and reducing forage fish biomass, but it can also impact fisheries by depleting commercially and recreationally important species. For this reason, sanctuary resource managers and scientists are concerned about the potential impact lionfish could have on the coral reef ecosystem, which supports the tourism and fishing industries.

Lionfish at Savannah's Snapper Banks

Lionfish at Savannah's Snapper Banks.
(Photo: Greg McFall, GRNMS)

The venomous protective spines of lionfish, combined with their feeding habits, fast reproductive cycle, and few natural predators in southeastern waters, all contribute to their successful invasive abilities. Lionfish can threaten local ecosystems, and impacts from lionfish could include direct competition with the grouper/snapper complex for food and predation on native reef fish and crustaceans. Also, lionfish pose a danger to divers and fishermen - stings from the venomous spines of the fish may result in pain, swelling, numbness and sometimes more severe effects including paralysis and systemic effects.

Reports of lionfish in the Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary were confirmed in 2007, and since that time, lionfish also invaded the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in 2009 and the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico in 2011. NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries is tracking lionfish activity in and around Gray's Reef, Florida Keys, and the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuaries. Although lionfish have only been seen inside Gray's Reef on two occasions, it is expected that the number will increase over time.

Eradication of introduced invasive species is difficult and often impossible, and management practices focus largely on prevention of introductions. However, once an invasive species is established, an early detection and rapid response (ED/RR) monitoring program may help manage the invasion.

Todd Recicar with Lionfish at R2 Tower

Todd Recicar, GRNMS, and lionfish at US Navy R2 Tower.
(Photo: Greg McFall, GRNMS)

As part of the effort to increase detection, reporting and response, researches will be conducting fish surveys and looking for lionfish on all dives within the sanctuary. Researchers will also be traveling outside the sanctuary to look for lionfish in areas where the invaders are consistently seen. When lionfish are observed, researchers will be photographing and documenting their location, as well as using specific collecting and handling techniques in an effort to successfully remove lionfish from sanctuary waters. Lionfish observations will be sent to USGS, as well as added to the sanctuary lionfish database. After removal, lionfish will be measured, weighed, and necropsied so their gut contents can be analyzed to determine what species of fish they are eating in and around sanctuary waters. Fish surveys will be analyzed to determine if there are less reef fish and crypic species in areas where lionfish are observed versus areas where they are not to determine if these species are being eaten (in correlation with the gut content analysis). This information will help researchers understand the impacts these invaders may be having on the sanctuary.

As the sanctuary continues to monitor lionfish, the diving and fishing public is encouraged to report sightings and locations of lionfish to the sanctuary office by phone or email. The information will be used to track the progress and impacts of the invasion, and enable responders to focus their removal efforts.


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