WUFT News

Why Venomous Lionfish Threaten Florida Reef Habitats

By on August 20th, 2013
Indo-Pacific native lionfish continue to be one of Florida’s most invasive species as they threaten reef habitats.

tiswango/Flickr

Indo-Pacific native lionfish continue to be one of Florida’s most invasive species as they threaten reef habitats.

Lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific and in Florida once only found in private aquariums, continue to be one of Florida’s most invasive species.

In the nearly 20 years since owners started releasing the fish into the ocean, the lionfish’s rapid reproducing has cost the state in devoured native reef fish.

Their ever-growing presence in the Atlantic has even inspired a Lionfish Derby & Rodeo in Key Largo.

Threat to Human Interaction

The crimson-striped fish can look exotic to divers, but their flamboyant, venomous spines are a defense mechanism causing severe pain and other reactions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, says lionfish sting reactions can be anything from swelling of the stung area or, in extreme cases, limb paralysis.

Alachua County resident Mike Engle has scuba-dived Florida’s waters for more than 13 years. He remembers seeing how close his hand came to the spines in a photo of him spearing a lionfish with his knife.

“That probably wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done in the water,” Engle said.

Threat to the Reef Habitat

Lionfish consume native species but have no natural predators of their own. They feed on Florida reef fish, depleting the population and threatening ocean diversity, commercial fishing and marine tourism.

By feeding on the cleaner fish and grazers that keep too much algae from growing on the reefs, said Tom Frazer, the University of Florida’s School of Natural Resources and Environment interim director.

Lionfish Population Control

Groups such as NOAA look for methods to better control the lionfish population. It’s nearly impossible to eliminate the marine invaders once they are established in a particular area.

Among those possible control methods are:

  • Recovering and maintaining natural lionfish predators from the Indo-Pacific
  • Designating protected reef areas for dedicated lionfish removal
  • Aquarium/“Pet Industry” Regulations
  • Public exotic organism awareness and education
  • Lionfish Spearing Contests
  • Continued encouragement for lionfish recipes and lionfish cookbooks

If lionfish populations continue to grow, researchers predict the future potential range of their invasion will extend from the U.S. coast, through the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, as far south as Brazil.


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