Coastal and Marine Invasive Species

The network of Sea Grant programs throughout the U.S. contribute to education and management efforts about the threat of invasive species to marine and coastal environments. One particular species of concern is the lionfish (Pterois volitans), also commonly known as the red lionfish or turkey fish.

Lionfish in the South Atlantic

The South Atlantic Sea Grant programs are working to integrate research and outreach program to address the introduction and spread of lionfish in the waters of the Caribbean and Western Atlantic Ocean.

Though native to the Pacific, lionfish are increasing in range and abundance in this area. Genetic studies indicate that Atlantic populations of lionfish are likely all descendents of a few individuals, supporting the widely held belief that lionfish were introduced into the Atlantic as a result of accidental or deliberate release of aquarium pets.

Regardless of the method of introduction, the prolific spread of these invasive species with few known predators in the Atlantic Ocean ecosystem is cause for concern. Lionfish directly compete with ecologically and commercially important native finfish species.

Breeding populations from Florida to North Carolina have been established. Since 2000, lionfish have spread from coastal Florida throughout the Western Atlantic. Bermuda and the Bahamas have initiated programs to cull lionfish, and Bahamians are being encouraged to eat lionfish as an alternative to grouper. In January 2009, the first lionfish was reported in the Florida Keys. That fish was successfully captured, though it's likely that more lionfish will settle in the Keys in the near future.

Regional Management Actions

The recent nature of the invasion of lionfish in the Atlantic Ocean means that environmental and impacts of its invasion have largely not been measured. Many natural resource management agencies in the region are moving forward with management actions and discussion of management alternatives.

Mitigation, Outreach and Education Efforts

Efforts at controlling lionfish have had mixed results at best. The prevailing strategy in shallow-water areas in the Caribbean and Florida Keys is to try and prevent infestation by early detection of lionfish and rapid removal of these fish using a team of trained divers. However, genetic studies have shown that the present source of lionfish in the Bahamas and the rest of the Caribbean is adult fish found off the southeastern Atlantic states. If efforts are not made to reduce the population of lionfish on the continental shelf of the US, there will continue to be a source of larvae to re-supply the shallow-water habitats.

Research is needed to develop approaches applicable to shallow habitats such as those found in the Florida Keys and Caribbean as well as deeper water habitats off north Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. Further, research needs to be coupled with an extension/outreach program that can engage fisheries managers, divers, and anglers in the development of relevant projects.


Last Updated: July 10, 2010

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