The Beacon

Lionfish: An Invasive Beauty

Oceana/Carlos Minguell

Oceana marine scientist Jon Warrenchuk reports on yesterday’s expedition dive task in Key West: searching for lionfish.

After a bumpy nighttime transit, we’re now anchored off the lower keys of Key West.

I’ve asked the dive team to count the number of lionfish they see at the dive sites today.  It’s easy to recognize lionfish, with their long fin rays and spines, and you’ve probably seen them in saltwater aquariums.  Yep, that’s them, staked out in some preferential corner of the aquarium, looking all spiny and finny.

Even though they look cool, we really do not want to see lionfish at the reefs here in Key West. Lionfish are native to the waters around Australia and Indonesia, where they are regular denizens of the fish community there. In those waters, lionfish are bound with all those ecological checks and balances that come with living in their natural habitat; all their competitors and predators that have evolved in the same place have worked out their happy little evolutionary détente.  

But here, lionfish are an invasive species. We know at least 6 lionfish escaped from a damaged seaside aquarium in 1992 during Hurricane Andrew. Since then, lionfish have become firmly established along the southeast U.S., the Bahamas, and the Caribbean, in some areas reaching a density eight times greater than in their native range. They are voracious predators and prolific breeders and greatly affect the food web where they get established.

We didn’t see any lionfish at the dive sites today, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. Key West is the frontline of the lionfish invasion into the Gulf of Mexico, where they’ve yet to become established. Maybe next year we can participate in a lionfish derby organized by REEF and the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary to humanely, ahem, remove lionfish from reef sites.

But ultimately the best way to limit the ecological damage is to have a healthy, resilient ecosystem; big groupers, apex predators, and a thriving reef community that can keep invasive species like lionfish in check.


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