Invasive to the western Atlantic, lionfish have become a critical concern, threatening a range of marine ecosystems

 

The Red Lionfish (Pterois volitans) is a venomous predatory reef fish, endemic to the Indo-Pacific. First sighted in the waters of southeastern Florida in the late 1980’s, lionfish quickly established populations throughout the western Atlantic and Caribbean, most recently invading the Gulf of Mexico. Aquarium trade is widely accepted as the responsible vector of invasion, with larval distribution and population expansion attributed to major ocean currents. In 2004, the first lionfish was documented in Bahamian waters, and by 2006 lionfish populations had increased drastically.

Lionfish are emerging as a top threat to ecosystem health in the region. Research indicates that lionfish are negatively affecting local marine environments through increased predation and competition with native reef species. Being opportunistic feeders, lionfish are efficient predators that prey on a wide array of ecologically and economically valuable fish and crustacean species, including juvenile grouper, parrotfish, wrasse and cleaner shrimp. Excessive predation upon these important species in addition to overfishing and other anthropogenic disturbances makes the lionfish invasion one of multiple threats to marine ecosystems in the western Atlantic. Additionally, lionfish have no known natural predators in their invaded range, which is likely aiding the extreme growth of their populations.

Our Research

In addition, the program encourages outside lionfish-related research projects by helping to design, implement and manage various on-site activities at CEI. The Lionfish Research Program has a threefold focus: research, outreach and education. Current research themes include:

  • Long term monitoring of reefs the effect of removing lionfish from invaded reefs on the recovery of native Bahamian reef fish populations. 
  • Behavioral studies of lionfish predation. 
  • Examining interaction between lionfish and lobster. 
  • Assessing lionfish prey preference through experimental lab work.

In addition to research, the program educates local communities on basic lionfish biology and promotes harvesting and consumption of lionfish. Beginning in the spring of 2011, a lionfish research course was incorporated into The Island School (IS) curriculum, which gives high school students the opportunity to take part in designing and carrying out additional projects that support lionfish efforts.
Although complete eradication of the invasive lionfish is unrealistic, the Lionfish Program seeks to expand the understanding and awareness of this fish to aid and inform efforts to protect marine ecosystems from the effects of the invasion.

 

Collaboration & Support

In January, 2011, the Lionfish Research Program was formed as a collaboration between CEI, the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) and Simon Fraser University (SFU). The program also teamed up with the Bahamas Department of Marine Resources (DMR) in an effort to mitigate negative impacts and control lionfish populations. The Institute served as a field site for a larger, Bahamian-wide project aimed to determine the frequency of removal needed to maintain safe populations of lionfish on reefs. Currently, Oregon State and SFU are conducting studies on site.