National Invasive Species Awareness Week

ARE YOU AWARE OF THE RED LIONFISH?

Yes… I would say most of you are.

When the red lionfish (Pterois volitans) first began to appear along the shores of the Florida panhandle there was a great effort to make locals aware of the potential problem.  Today it is rare to find people who do not know what a lionfish is.  I was recently working with a group of elementary school students in the beach classroom at the school districts environmental center.  There was a tank with a lionfish in it and as I approached, they all yelled out – “that’s a lionfish”.  They were all aware of this invasive species. 

Red Lionfish Photo: Florida Sea Grant

The first record of lionfish in the northern Gulf of Mexico was logged in 2010 – though a presentation at our recent panhandle lionfish workshop suggested it may have been here as early as 2008.  There was immediate concern from the fishing and diving community.  We began to hold workshops and local non-profits formed to begin removal tournaments.  The word on the aggressive spread, fast reproductive rate, and lack of predators sent an alarm across the region. 

In 2013 we held our 1st panhandle regional lionfish workshop.  Researchers indicated that the densities of lionfish off our shores were the highest in the south Atlantic region – a presentation at the recent workshop indicated, at that time, the density of lionfish here may have been the highest in the world.  It was not uncommon to see videos of small artificial reefs with 100 or more lionfish hanging about.  It was reported that they were opportunistic feeders and had identified no fewer than 70 species of small reef fishes in their guts.  The reproductive rates were an average of 30,000 fertilized eggs every four days – basically year-round.  Their eggs drifted in a gelatinous sac and the spread of the fish followed the ocean currents, spreading everywhere. 

War was declared. 

Lionfish tournaments began to pop everywhere.  They began with a few hundred or a thousand lionfish turned into events where tens of thousands of lionfish were weighed during three-day events.  Lionfish education and outreach expanded across the state.  Some engaged in the commercial harvest of these fish.  Turned out they were quite tasty.  Knowing Pensacola was sort of ground zero for lionfish density – I was contacted by chefs from around the region seeking fillets. 

At the 2019 workshop researchers reported that the densities had declined in waters less than 200 feet.  Everyone pointed at the recreational and commercial harvest as a possible cause, but something was obviously working.  Lionfish were beginning to develop skin lesions.  Scientists were not sure of the cause, and not sure whether this played a role in the density declines, but it was happening.  Harvesters reported problems on the commercial side.  Dive time and location were becoming problems, densities were declining – less fish to harvest, and the price point between the harvesters and the seafood industry were not where either side wanted them.  One thing that seemed to be working was ecotourism.  Word about huge numbers of lionfish was drawing visiting divers from all over.  Dive charters were finding they could make more money but taking visitors out to shoot lionfish, than selling them to the commercial markets.  There was also a supply issue.  One restaurant from Charleston South Carolina contacted me asking for a source of lionfish.  He said he needed about 500 pounds a week.  This order would be very difficult to fill.  But things from the invasive side, at least in waters less than 200 feet, seemed to be improving. 

We just held the 3rd regional workshop in 2024.  Researchers indicated that the densities were still down.  Anecdotal reports suggest an increase in lionfish.  It was thought that the pandemic reduced tournaments and commercial harvest and populations of lionfish were on the rise again.  This may very well may be, but science did not show this.  More studies were needed.  Skin lesions are still occurring, but researchers are still not sure what is causing it.  There does seem to be a link between the decline in density and the frequency of these lesions – the researchers believe that these lesions are playing at least a part in controlling their population. 

One researcher reported evidence of lionfish in our estuaries.  Using eDNA methods she was able to identify lionfish DNA in the upper portions of Escambia, Blackwater, Perdido, and Mobile Bays.  The monitoring was done during low tide to reduce the chance of tides moving the eDNA up into the bay.  She also found evidence of lionfish DNA in the feces of shorebirds nesting on our barrier islands.  They are still working out how this is happening, possibly the birds are feeding on newly hatched lionfish from the drifting egg mass – not sure.  But it is very interesting. 

The commercial harvest is doing okay in some parts of the panhandle, but not in others.  Interviewing restaurants and seafood markets we found several barriers keeping some of these businesses from providing lionfish.  First was the size of the fish and percent yield of fillet.  Lionfish are small and labor intensive to prepare.  A second concern was the venomous spines.  There were also concerns about supply and price points.  However, all the seafood markets and restaurants we spoke with were interested in selling lionfish if we could overcome these barriers and were very open to the idea of education/meetings on how to do so.  Florida Sea Grant does plan to begin these meetings this year. 

The tournaments continue to do well.  Destin’s Emerald Coast Classic is now the largest lionfish tournament in the world.  Interest and participation continue to be strong.  Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Lionfish Challenge is also doing well, though they reported a decline in the number of commercial harvesters participating. 

So as of now

  • Lionfish remain in the Gulf of Mexico
  • Densities are still low
  • Lesions are still occurring
  • Commercial harvest has not gone as well as hoped
  • Tournaments are doing well
  • Lionfish appear to be moving into the estuaries

We will see what updates the 2029 workshop will add to the story.

Rick O'Connor
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