Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Invasive Lionfish

lionfish photo credit: U.S. Geological Survey

The rapid spread of lionfishes along the U.S. eastern seaboard, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean is the first documented case of a non-native marine fish establishing a self-sustaining population in the region, according to recent U.S. Geological Survey studies.

“Nothing like this has been seen before in these waters,” said Dr. Pam Schofield, a biologist with the USGS Southeast Ecological Science Center here.  “We’ve observed sightings of numerous non-native species, but the extent and speed with which lionfish have spread has been unprecedented; lionfishes pretty much blanketed the Caribbean in three short years.”

More than 30 species of non-native marine fishes have been sighted off the coast of Florida alone, but until now none of these have demonstrated the ability to survive, reproduce, and spread successfully. Although lionfishes originally came from the Indo-West Pacific Ocean, there are now self-sustaining populations spreading along the western Atlantic coast of the U.S. and throughout the Caribbean.

Invasive lionfishes were first reported off Florida’s Atlantic coast in the mid-1980s, but did not become numerous in the region until 2000.  Since then, the lionfish population has rapidly spread north through the Atlantic Ocean and south throughout most of the Caribbean. The spreading population is now working its way around the Gulf of Mexico.

Eradication of lionfishes is probably not possible, admits Schofield. Yet, local control efforts may be able to keep the population tamped down, releasing pressure on the native ecosystem.  Many Caribbean countries such as Bermuda and the Cayman Islands have begun lionfish control programs.  In the U.S., REEF held a series of lionfish derbies in the Florida Keys that resulted in more than 600 lionfishes being removed from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Schofield’s most recent paper, “Update on geographic spread of invasive lionfishes in the Western North Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico,” was published in the Dec. 2010 issue of Aquatic Invasions; it updates a 2009 article published in the same journal.   For more information on lionfish, see the USGS Lionfish Factsheet.

Background on lionfish biology and ecology is also available on NOAA’s Lionfish Website. Information on REEF’s lionfish programs is available at their website.

source: U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey

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