Three research projects are underway at Florida Sea Grant that will test methods to control the invasion of the exotic lionfish in the Atlantic and Caribbean.
Complete eradication of lionfish is unlikely, according to Maia McGuire, an invasive species specialist with Florida Sea Grant, but there is hope that developing methods for local removal may be the key to controlling them and mitigating further damage.
“These research projects were selected because they are most likely to contribute to the development of methods that can be used to reduce or eradicate lionfish, and reduce their ecological damage,” McGuire said.
“What we learn will help state agencies, natural resource managers and conservation organizations address the invasion problem in a time when they have limited funding and other resources to do it.”
The lionfish is a species of reef fish easily recognized by a striking display of red and white zebra striping and protruding venomous spines. Though native to the warm, tropical waters of the Indian and Pacific oceans, they have proliferated in the Caribbean, the southern Atlantic off the U.S. coast, and the Gulf of Mexico.
Biologists believe they were probably introduced when aquarium owners emptied unwanted pet lionfish into nearby coastal waters rather than disposing of them by recommended methods.
One hallmark of the species is its voracious appetite, which has raised concerns that lionfish will devastate juvenile populations of important native species, and out-compete fish that eat the same thing.
Moreover, lionfish seem to be at home in places other than the region’s coral reefs, making control tactics more challenging to implement. “In addition to reefs, they have been found in a variety of ocean and coastal habitats we have in these waters, including mangroves and seagrass, and at depths from shoreline to at least 1,000 feet,” McGuire said.
The largest of the three research projects is attempting to identify the most efficient and cost-effective methods to fish down lionfish numbers so native fish populations can recover and stabilize. Researchers will use volunteer spear divers to capture lionfish at different frequency rates from five selected areas off southeast Florida, while monitoring changes in the numbers of prey-sized native fishes.
The project is being conducted by a collaborative research team that includes Chris Stallings of the University of South Florida, Mark Albins of Auburn University, and Craig Layman of Florida International University.
The second project will evaluate the effectiveness of using divers and snorkelers competing in fishing derbies and rodeos to reduce lionfish numbers in Puerto Rico. Lionfish derbies have become popular social events across the Caribbean and South Florida that help raise public awareness about the lionfish problem, but there are no precise results that help resource managers determine if they are effective for small-scale control under a variety of conditions.
The project is being conducted by a collaborative research team consisting of Richard Appeldoorn from the University of Puerto Rico, and Matthew Craig, director of San Diego-based MTC Associates.
The third project will try to determine which is the most effective of three removal techniques – derbies, traps, or continuous removal. The Reef Environmental Education Foundation, known as REEF, will compare and contrast results from among the three on coral reefs in selected locations in South Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Currently, continuous organized removal by divers and snorkelers is one of the most common methods for lionfish removal, but the use of traps and derbies is increasing. Researchers hope the results will help managers prioritize removal techniques that are the most useful and economic for their specific location.
Funding for the research projects is provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration through a regional research and outreach effort involving the Sea Grant programs of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Puerto Rico.
For More Information
Maia McGuire, firstname.lastname@example.org, (386) 437-7464