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DNA Barcoding Our Way into Understanding the Lionfish Problem

In the late 1980’s a few exotic lionfish were found off the coast of Dania Florida. I do not think anyone foresaw the impact this was going to have.  Producing tens of thousands of drifting eggs per female each week, they began to disperse following the Gulf Stream.  First in northeast Florida, then the Carolina’s, Bermuda, the Caribbean, and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.  The invasion was one of the more dramatic ones seen in nature.

The Invasive Lionfish

Lionfish are found on a variety of structures, both natural and artificial, and are known from shallow estuaries to depths of 1000 feet in the ocean. They are opportunistic feeders, engulfing whatever is within their range and fits in their mouths, and have few predators due to their neurotoxicity spines. These fish are well-designed eating machines with a high reproductive rate, and perfectly adapted to invading new territories, if they can get there.

 

And they got here…

 

Like so many other invasive species, humans brought them to our state. Some arrive intentionally, some by accident, but we brought them.  Lionfish came to Florida intentionally as an aquarium fish.  Beautiful and exotic, they are popular at both public aquariums and with hobbyists… Then they escaped.

 

So what now?

 

What impact will these opportunistic fish have on the local environment? On the local economy?

This is, in essence, the definition of an invasive species. The potential for a negative impact on either the ecosystem or local fishing is there.  We now know they are found on many local reefs, in many cases the dominant fish in the community.  We know they can produce an average of 25,000 fertilized per female per week and breed most of the year.  We also know they consume a variety of reef fish, about 70 species have been reported from their stomachs.

Over 70 species of small reef fish have been found in the stomachs of lionfish; including red snapper.
Photo: Bryan Clark

However, what impact is this having on local fisheries?

 

Well, we do know there have been more reports of fishermen catching them on hook and line. We also know that scientists are examining the DNA of their stomach content that cannot be identified visually, and some of the results indicate commercially valuable species are on the menu.

 

Area high school students are now conducting dissections using this same methodology. Under the direction of Dr. Jeff Eble, over 900 area high school students examined the stomach contents of local lionfish last year.  Students from Escambia, Gulf Breeze, Navarre, Pensacola, Washington, and West Florida high schools – along with Woodlawn Middle School – identified 16 different species in lionfish stomachs.  Of economic concern were snapper; 42% of the prey identified were Vermillion Snapper – 4% were Red Snapper.

 

Though the consumption of non-commercial species can affect the population of commercial ones, the direct consumption of commercial species is concerning. The commercial value of Vermillion Snapper landed in Escambia County in 2016 was about $800,000 (highest in the state).

 

This year two more high schools will participate in the dissection portion of this project; those being Tate and Pine Forest. These students need lionfish and we are seeking donations from local divers to help support this project.  If interested in helping, please contact me at roc1@ufl.edu or (850) 475-5230.

 

 

References

 

Dahl, K.A. W.F. Patterson III. 2014. Habitat-Specific Density and Diet of Rapidly Expanding Invasive Red Lionfish (Pterois volitans), Populations in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. PLOS ONE. Vol 9 (8). Pp. 13.

 

FWC Commercial Landing Summaries. 2017. https://public.myfwc.com/FWRI/PFDM/ReportCreator.aspx.

PG

Author: Rick O'Connor - roc1@ufl.edu

Sea Grant Extension Agent in Escambia County