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Lionfish: an invasive problem

Picture by team member: Ian Ritter

Lionfish, which are native to the Indo-Pacific region, first began apparent in Florida in the 1980s. There are two, and nearly indistinguishable, species of lionfish (Pterois miles and Pterois volitans) that now invade Florida's coastal waters, the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic and the Caribbean. It is still a mystery to how exactly lionfish made their way to these areas, but one plausible explanation explores the aquarium trade and the possible release of lionfish from aquariums to the wild. Now, in the past 15 years, lionfish have dramatically increased in population size, causing havoc over non-native reef systems.

Lionfish have 18 venomous spines on their fins that cause excruciating pain and are used against predators. There are thirteen spines along the front of their dorsal fin, one on each pelvic fin, and three on their anal fin, while none on their pectorals or caudal fin. Their venom is a neurotoxin, that can sting even if the lionfish is dead. Making them hard for any non-native fish to consume. In addition, lionfish are capable of breeding year-round. Mature females over a year old, release over 50,000 eggs every three days, reducing biodiversity over a reef. Because not much can eat them, one lionfish can reduce recruitment of local coral reef fish by 79 percent (Albins and Hixon, 2008). Lionfish tend to consume prey that snappers and groupers eat, potentially becoming an issue in these commercially important fish species. Having lionfish consume herbivores on coral reefs proves detrimental, as herbivorous fish help reduce the amount of algae growth on corals. Less herbivores means an overgrowth of algae, which prevents corals from photosynthesizing and thus growing.

In the Indo-Pacific, sharks, groupers, large eels and others prey on lionfish. Lionfish have no known predators in their non-native range; however, research fishery biologist for NOAA, Roldan Muñoz, recently published a paper documenting a spotted Moray eel, which was brought up far offshore of Jacksonville, FL, coughing up a lionfish when brought up on deck. This is the first example of natural predation of the invasive lionfish in the Atlantic Ocean because the Moray was found in an area where divers would not have been hunting. Munoz states a word of caution: "The eel is not the panacea here…All I’m trying to say is we should potentially look into this in more detail…We don’t really have as good an understanding of how many eels are on reefs.” So for now (and until the Atlantic's and Caribbeans large predator species figure out they can probably consume lionfish), only one true predator remains for their non-native region... humans.

That's where we come in. Project Kolika is proud to announce that we are expanding our efforts and starting a Florida Chapter! With the help of local volunteers and sponsors, we will be mitigating lionfish populations of certain coastal areas and extracting data from our catches. We believe citizen science and the power of passionate watermen/women can significantly impact our ocean conservation efforts towards success.

Want to help out with this invasion problem?

  • Do you live in Florida? You can join our bi-weekly efforts! Shoot us an email at

  • If you already catch lionfish, they're an extremely sustainable seafood option, as they're invasive! You still need to exercise caution with any tropical fish as eating them could lead to ciguatera poisoning. However, there hasn't yet been a recorded case of ciguatera poisoning when eating lionfish.

  • Join a local lionfish derby.

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