You may have heard of or seen lionfish during your visit to the Gulf coast, maybe you even were able to visit during the Annual Lionfish Removal and Awareness Festival held in nearby Destin each May. But did you know the reason behind the festival was to REMOVE these beautiful fish from our area? This is because the lionfish is an invasive species to our native waters. A tropical predatory fish from the Indo- Pacific region, the lionfish was introduced to Florida waters by an aquarium release in the 1980s. Since then, the lionfish have been successfully living and reproducing in the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Ocean, and the Caribbean Sea.
The lionfish is an invasive species to our area, meaning that they were brought to our area by people, causing negative impacts like introducing diseases to preying on native species. Invasive species have characteristics that allow them to outcompete native species and change biodiversity, community structure, and ecosystem processes in a region. The lionfish are the most damaging, best established, and most rapidly expanding of all marine fish invasions to date.
There is essentially no marine habitat that lionfish have not been able to invade. They can be found in artificial and natural reefs, shallow-inshore environments within bays, estuaries, and rivers, and in deeper waters offshore. As a demersal species, lionfish enjoy living on the ocean floor, under ledges overhangs, and in crevices. This makes scuba diving an exceptionally fun and efficient way to find and fish out the lionfish. If you do decide to scuba dive for some lionfish- be careful! Lionfish have 18 venomous spines used strictly for defense. A lionfish sting can be profoundly serious and make one extremely sick, a sting usually requires hospital care.
One reason that lionfish are considered invasive in our area is their tendency to prey on local fish that are economically and ecologically important such as grouper, snapper, shrimp, crab, and baitfish. Over 90 different species have been found in the stomachs of lionfish. Lionfish can swallow prey over half of their body size and swallow it whole. Lionfish are opportunistic generalists- meaning they will prey on any convenient species and rotate their diet based on what is most easily available. This is extremely dangerous to the population of native fish, as fewer juveniles mean fewer adult populations of native fish are unable to be replaced as they are removed through fishing, disease, or age- risking a population collapse. Lionfish also prey on algae-eaters, which causes a shift to an algae-dominated habitat and damages coral reef structures.
There is no known control mechanism for lionfish in the invaded range- no parasites, diseases, or predators that consistently target lionfish. Native predators do not recognize them as prey, probably due to their unique coloration of bright red and orange coloring and pattern- this typically signifies a warning sign that they are potentially dangerous and venomous. Humans are the only known consistent predator that can remove lionfish from the ecosystem. It is estimated that removing 65% of adult lionfish on a reef will allow native predators to re-establish the ecosystem. There is no size limit or bag limit for harvesting lionfish. People may harvest as many as they like of any size.
To learn more about the lionfish, visit www.MyFWC.com/lionfish, or stop by the Perdido Key Visitor’s Center located at 15500 Perdido Key Drive to see live lionfish in the famous pirate ship fish tank.
Lionfish Fast Facts
- The two species of lionfish that have invaded Florida waters are the Red Lionfish (Pterois volitans) and the Devil Firefish (Pterois miles).
- Lionfish are slow-moving and relatively easy to capture with dip nets or spears.
- Currently have no significant predators in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico
- Consume a wide variety of economically and ecologically important fish and invertebrates
- Can tolerate a wide range of water temperature, salinity, and depth
- Have 18 venomous spines that can cause painful wounds
- Are not aggressive and use their venomous spines only for defense
- Can exceed 18 inches in length, but most are less than 15 inches
- Have free-floating egg masses that are distributed by ocean currents
- Can release up to 30,000 eggs per spawn
- Spines are not hollow like snake fangs. Instead, venomous glandular tissue is housed in grooves along the spine
- Stalk predators and often use their fins to herd prey into a corner before consuming them whole
- Able to consume prey that is more than half of their own length
- If stung, apply heat- this neutralizes the toxin preventing it from spreading through the bloodstream.