Underwater Warfare: The Invasion of the Lionfish


While oil spills, overfishing, and increasing ocean temperatures garner national media attention for their destructive effects on coral and marine life, a more subversive biological terrorist is damaging coral reefs and local fish populations along the eastern coast of the United States, at alarming rates.

Native to the Asian Pacific Ocean, the lionfish is a relative newcomer as an invasive species. Although, reports of lionfish sightings date back as early as the 1980’s, it was not until 2000 that the population of the venomous predator boomed in the western Atlantic. Scientists have documented lionfish consuming up to ninety percent of native species in areas they colonize.

What is a Lionfish?

Lionfish are indigenous to the western Pacific. Native populations stretch from southern Japan to the Philippines, but are described as “manageable.” Although ultimately destructive, the Lionfish must be commended on its’ remarkable ability to proliferate and adapt. A single female can produce more than 2 million eggs a year, casting her roe into ocean currents. The larvae hatch and arrive “hungry and ready to eat.” With bright orange and white stripes, the fish resembles a bird more than an underwater species, but the tines that line the spine of its back cloak venomous quills. Although not fatal to humans, the potentially deadly venom contributes to the lionfish having no natural predators. Lionfish can adapt to live in both natural settings like coral reefs, or non-natural structures like sunken ships or wreckage, and underwater construction. Showing how remarkably adaptable they are, lionfish have recently been found living in freshwater rivers in Florida. All of these factors contribute to create an invasive species that has no natural boundaries to expansion.

Lionfish in the U.S.

Although many sources disagree about how this venomous predator made its way to the Atlantic, the one common factor is human involvement. Likely imported for personal aquariums, scientists believe owners who could no longer, or would no longer, care for their pets released the first Atlantic Lionfish into the ocean.

Divers first spotted lionfish off the coast of Miami, Florida in the 1980’s, but numbers remained low throughout the 80’s and 90’s, before exploding in the early 2000’s. In response to this drastic increase in numbers, coral reefs that rely upon biodiversity to maintain healthy formations have struggled to survive. The situation is getting so dire, national media outlets like CBS have chronicled the invasion of this nuisance species.

From 2004 to 2010, scientists claim lionfish comprised nearly 40% of the total predator biomass of aquatic systems they have colonized. Lionfish have shown that they are not picky eaters; more than seventy species of prey have been found in lionfish stomachs. With their insatiable appetites, lionfish are decimating ninety percent of the native fish in the areas they are colonizing. Lionfish can survive for weeks without eating a meal, but won’t resort to those measures when they are not required to. Some fish caught off the North Carolina coast have shown signs of overeating, and in some cases the fish have been described as “obese.”

Lionfish employ a slight variation to the typical style of ambush predation. Instead they slowly pursue and extend their fins in an attempt to corner their prey. Scientists believe prey species off the eastern coast of North America are inexperienced with this type of attack, making them more susceptible to it. This type of predation may lead to increased efficiency, further diminishing the native prey species populations.

Federal Action

The lead federal organization playing a role in the attempt to help mitigate the impacts of the Lionfish is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”). Within NOAA, the Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research (“CCFHR”) is the main science center concerning itself with the habitat loss attributable to lionfish. When trying to set policy regarding best lionfish management practices, agencies run into the problem of dealing with both United States and internationally controlled waters. The majority of states are granted jurisdiction over waters extending three miles seaward from the shore. Although the federal government regulates national security and a few other matters within those three miles, states are required to manage and lease marine resources throughout the three miles of water and seabed bordering their shores. A NOAA study looked at three options for lionfish management in state and territorial controlled waters.

The first proposal centers on the principle of augmenting state based management plans. State based plans are diverse in nature, ranging from setting specific educational, monitoring and removal efforts, to more passive methods like enforcing release prohibitions, and drafting lionfish handling and collection protocols. Although this approach allows plans to be tailored to fit state specific circumstances, cooperation between state and federal agencies is notoriously difficult to oversee, and the enforcement of these types of collaborations has ultimately stalled this approach.

The other two approaches work through the lens of creating an Aquatic Nuisance Species (“ANS”) task force. One option is creating state based task forces to address the issue. To combat the lack of funding available for task forces like these, Congress enacted the Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act (“NANPCA”). NANPCA allows states to create and submit ANS management plans. If approved, the state is eligible to recoup up to 75% of whatever costs are required to implement the plan. Louisiana, Georgia, and South Carolina have ANS Task force approved plans in place, while Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and North Carolina still have plans under development.

Federal legislation was first introduced to address the impacts of lionfish in 2011. Although ultimately unsuccessful, it started a discussion that brought the lionfish epidemic to the national stage. Most recently Florida Congressmen David Jolly and Curt Clawson co-sponsored the Lionfish Elimination and Prevention Act (“LEAP”). The act would ban the importation of the eleven species of lionfish. LEAP would not interfere with the sale of fillets for human consumption, a key consideration in reducing the population of lionfish.

An Organic Solution

Once an invasive species establishes itself in a new ecosystem it is nearly impossible to eradicate them. With that in mind, the public search for a solution has shifted from finding a method that will eradicate the predators, to a method that will contain the spread of lionfish, and reduce the population to a manageable number. One option that has garnered much support from local communities is the systematic targeting and removal of the fish through hunting. The only drawback to this plan is that lionfish do not travel in packs, and their proximity to coral reefs and underground structures make the use of nets too destructive to be practical. The only commonly practiced method of fishing is accomplished by a diver and involves the use of a handheld spring-loaded spear. This method, although very effective, and if done properly doesn’t harm coral, requires the hunter to have the proper certification and gear, and takes many hunters to remove the fish at a fast rate.

A small contingent of fisherman-conservationists has sprung up and started hunting these fish for sport, as well as for conservation of the local fish population. Discovery Diving Company of Beaufort North Carolina has established an annual “If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em” lionfish tournament, offering a $500 prize to the diver who harvests the highest total number of lionfish. Although this movement provides a practical solution with measurable results, environmental advocates, as well as the local tourist and commercial fishing organizations that rely on the health and biodiversity of the ocean, are concerned with the speed of removal and overall impact.

Lionfish are considered a delicacy in many countries. A cooked filet is light and flaky in nature and is considered similar to flounder. Restaurants in Mississippi, another state dealing with the invasion, have started to offer lionfish as a menu item to positive reviews. However, supply of the fish is spotty and restaurants need steady sources to make the fish a staple. At this stage hunters are key to the availability of lionfish for sale in restaurants, and in turn creating a higher demand.


Despite any solutions we might find, lionfish are here to stay. Individuals can help battle this problem by eating at restaurants that serve lionfish and increasing demand. Despite public approval for federal action addressing the invasion, recent decreases in federal funding across the budget means that money to help battle lionfish is unlikely. With ravaged populations of native species, and the health of coral formations at jeopardy, the search for a widely implementable solution is more important now than ever.

The Featured Image is of a wild lionfish and part of the public domain.


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