I had the morning off today and thought it would be a great opportunity to bring you all up to speed on the lionfish invasion.
Lionfish were first spotted off the coast of Florida, far from their native range in the Indo Pacific. It is currently under speculation how lionfish were first introduced into the Atlantic, however most agree it was likely due to multiple releases along the Florida coast. The only documented release of the species was near Biscayne Bay, Florida where a small aquarium was destroyed in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Apparently these releases were all that lionfish needed to start a full blown invasion. Within the past 20 years, lionfish have spread as far North as Rhode Island, South to Jamaica, East to Bermuda, and West to the Yucatan Peninsula, now threatening to invade the Gulf of Mexico as well.
Lionfish are the first marine fish species from the western Pacific to be apparently successful in the Atlantic coastal waters of the United States. Which sparks two big questions: What is making lionfish so successful in the Atlantic? And what is controlling them in the Pacific? These are a couple questions Mark Hixon and his team are trying to answer.
Just last year, research conducted by Mark Albins (the grad student I’m working with) and Hixon found that a single lionfish reduced recruitment of native fishes by 79% during a five week span. Native fishes hardly stand a chance against this invasive predator with such a healthy appetite and unique hunting style. Lionfish hunt by herding their prey with their wide, feathered pectorals, trapping fish in front of their enormous mouths. Not only are lionfish eating a ton, they don’t appear to have any natural predators resulting in a population explosion.
What this means for the future of coral reef ecosystems is not yet known, but will likely put significant strain on the already struggling coral reefs. Understanding the impacts of such an invasion and forming potential strategies to control it are scientists’ primary goals and concerns.