The Red Lionfish (Pterois volitans) is a venomous predatory reef fish, endemic to the Indo-Pacific. Lionfish have become an invasive species of critical concern, posing serious threats to non-native ecosystems. First sighted in the waters of southeastern Florida in the late 1980’s, lionfish quickly established successful 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 to concerning levels.
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. Lionfish are opportunistic, efficient predators that prey a wide array of ecologically and economically valuable fish and crustacean species, including juvenile grouper, parrotfish, wrasse and cleaner shrimp. These interactions add additional stress to areas already jeopardized by overfishing and other anthropogenic disturbances. Additionally, lionfish have no known natural predators in their invaded range, which is likely aiding the unregulated growth of their invasive populations.
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). In addition, the program encourages outside lionfish-related research project 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:
• Assessing the effectiveness of traps as tools for lionfish
• Behavioral studies of lionfish predation
• Assessing lionfish movement and growth through tagging
• Evaluating the effect of removing lionfish from invaded reefs on the recovery of native Bahamian reef fish populations
The program has also teamed up with the Bahamas Department of Marine Resources (DMR) in an effort to mitigate negative impacts and control lionfish populations. The Institute serves as a field site for a larger, Bahamian-wide project aimed to determine the frequency of removal needed to maintain lionfish-free reefs.
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. Initial IS projects will focus on finding the relationship between local current flow and patterns of abundance and sizes of lionfish throughout Rock Sound, South Eleuthera. Determining how water movement affects distribution is a step in understanding local connectivity within this species.
Although complete eradication of the invasive lionfish is unrealistic, heightening the understanding and awareness of this fish on a local and regional scale can foster the amelioration of this critical situation. Through research, outreach and education, the Lionfish Program seeks to aid and inform efforts to protect marine ecosystems from the effects of the invasion