Native to the Indo-Pacific, the lionfish is a species of reef fish easily recognized by a striking display of red and white zebra striping and protruding venomous spines. Biologists believe they were probably introduced when aquarium owners emptied unwanted pet lionfish into nearby coastal waters.
Lionfish were first officially reported in the western Atlantic Ocean in 1985. Since 2004, these fish have spread very rapidly throughout the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico. The USGS, which tracks the spread of lionfish has created an animation showing their range expansion.
Lionfish are being widely promoted as a food fish. Because lionfish are voracious predators, some concerns have been raised that the fish might bioaccumulate ciguatoxin, which results in ciguatera food poisoning. Ciguatoxin is not denatured by cooking. In general, lionfish should not be eaten if they are harvested from areas prone to high ciguatoxin levels.
Lionfish are found in a range of habitats from seagrass beds to reefs, and in depths ranging from very shallow to depths of 1000 feet. Generally, they are difficult to catch with hook and line, and are primarily captured by divers using spear guns.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission held a lionfish summit in October, 2013, to obtain input about lionfish research and education priorities. The development of lionfish-specific traps was listed as the top priority at this meeting. Ranked second was the need to better understand what type of harvesting frequency is needed in order to keep lionfish populations reduced in localized areas. Florida Sea Grant, along with Sea Grant programs in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Puerto Rico, has funded three lionfish research projects, each of which is addressing some aspect of this question.
By Maia McGuire
Sea Grant research across five state programs has focused on mitigating impacts from the lionfish invasion in the Western Atlantic and Caribbean by investigating different management strategies. This publication summarizes results from three studies conducted in South Florida, the Caribbean and Puerto Rico.
Want to learn more?
We provide the following resources to learn more about lionfish.
Fact sheets and books:
Modeling Lionfish Management Strategies on the West Florida Shelf: Workshop Summary and Results by Micheal Allen, University of Florida
Invasive Species of Florida’s Coastal Waters: The Red Lionfish (Pterois volitans) and Devil Firefish (P. miles) by Maia McGuire and Jeff Hill, UF/IFAS Extension/Florida Sea Grant
Lionfish Quickfacts by Reef Environmental Education Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the United States Geological Survey
Invasive Lionfish: A Guide to Control and Management by James Morris and Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute
Lionfish: Is it Safe to Eat? by Steve Otwell, Florida Sea Grant, UF/IFAS Extension