© 2024 | WUWF Public Media
11000 University Parkway
Pensacola, FL 32514
850 474-2787
NPR for Florida's Great Northwest
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The threats of lionfish on the Gulf of Mexico

Red lionfish near Gilli Banta Island.
Creative Commons
Red lionfish near Gilli Banta Island.

Over the years, lionfish have become a growing concern along the Gulf of Mexico. Indigenous to coral reefs of the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, lionfish are an invasive species in the region that prey on native fish. Due to their venomous spines, lionfish have no known predators, making them a potential threat to commercial and recreational fisheries. Here's a few facts about these funny looking fish.

  • Lionfish have only been around for a few decades

While their manner of introduction to the region is unknown, lionfish were first detected along Florida’s coasts in the 1980s. Experts suspect that humans may have released them into the ocean via home aquariums. Biologists believe that lionfish populations have not yet peaked in the Gulf of Mexico, meaning that their demand for native prey will only increase.
“Lionfish have few if any natural predators and they have greatly reduced populations of native fish,” said Dr. Wayne Bennett, Professor of Physiology at the University of West Florida. “In many areas, resident fish simply don't recognize lionfish as a threat.”

  • Lionfish are carnivorous species

Lionfish feed on small fish and crustaceans, including the prey of native snappers, groupers, and other commercially significant fish. They also consume native herbivores, which create imbalances in algal growth. Without controlled algal growth, the health of coral reefs are impacted, disrupting the ecosystem’s overall health.
Research has found that a single lionfish occupying a coral reef can reduce the recruitment of native reef fish by up to 79%. Research also indicates that lionfish can thrive in brackish coastal zones, mangrove, and estuarine habitats, intensifying their risk of invasion.

“The species is a generalist that can survive in many types of marine conditions,” Bennett said. “As to how many lionfish there are in Gulf waters, no one really knows. The fish are iterative spawners and can lay thousands of eggs year-round in many areas of the Gulf.”

  • There is an effort to remove lionfish, even if they can't be eliminated altogether

While marine invaders are nearly impossible to eliminate, the region is taking measures to mitigate the growing lionfish threat in the Gulf of Mexico. Destin-Fort Walton Beach Tourism and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hosted the 5th Annual Lionfish Removal & Awareness Festival last weekend at the Destin Harbor. The event includes the Emerald Coast Open Tournament, where 144 divers caught 19,560 fish caught during two-day day. A total 24,699 lionfish were caught including the pre-tournament making it a record year compared to last year's 13,835 lionfish caught.

"By far the most lionfish collected during this event and the largest lionfish record was broken five times," said Alex Fogg, Coastal Resource Manager for Destin-Fort Walton Beach Tourism. "The largest lionfish was 456mm (or 17.95in)."

“Lionfish roundups are becoming pretty popular around the Gulf,” Bennett added. “They do generate revenue for local businesses, and bring a lot of people to the beach. After a roundup tournament, the lionfish population will drop for a short while.”

Cooperation among federal, state, and local agencies is dire for the proper management of lionfish and other invasive species in the Gulf of Mexico. Even if you didn't join last weekend's events, you can still join the FWC Lionfish Challenge which runs through Oct. 1.

Hunter joined WUWF in 2021 as a student reporter.