Exotic and Invasive Species
- What is a lionfish?
- Where did lionfish come from?
- What types of habitat do lionfish prefer?
- How common are they?
- What do lionfish eat? What eats lionfish?
- Why are lionfish bad for the environment?
- Are lionfish dangerous? What should I do if I am stung?
- What is being done to control invasive lionfish in the Gulf of Mexico?
- What should I do if I see a lionfish?
- More information on lionfish or other invasive species
Lionfish are a small to medium sized reef fish (up to 18 inches) generally found on hard structures such as oil rigs or shipwrecks. They are reddish brown/white striped in color and possess large ornamental fins with venomous spines. They have a large head and mouth which makes them very effective predators of other small reef fishes.
There are many species of lionfish, but the two that are responsible for most invasions in the Gulf are the red lionfish (Pterois volitans) and the devil firefish (Pterois miles). These two species are very difficult to tell apart without genetic analysis.
Lionfish are naturally found throughout the Indo-Pacific. It is thought that they were first introduced to the Atlantic in the early 1990’s as aquarium escapees in the Biscayne Bay area of South Florida. However, lionfish are popular in saltwater aquariums and a few were reported in the Atlantic prior to this. Since this initial introduction, lionfish have spread up the Atlantic coast with reports as far north as Rhode Island, into the Florida Keys, Bermuda, the Caribbean Islands, and east into the northern and (most recently) western Gulf of Mexico. It is thought that lionfish are able to spread rapidly throughout this range by taking advantage of surface currents, such as the Gulf Stream, as larvae. Due to the fact that they are naturally from tropical regions of the world and prefer warm waters, it is thought that they will not be able to establish themselves farther north than North Carolina.
Lionfish are a type of reef fish which means that they generally prefer to live near hard structures such as oil rigs, wrecks, coral reefs, jetties, etc. though they have recently been shown to thrive in mangrove communities as well. Adjacent to the Texas coast, most lionfish are reported by divers on oil rigs, ship wrecks, and even coral reef in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. During the day, lionfish are fairly inactive, generally hiding in crevices in the reef structure, and are thought to be nocturnal, mainly hunting in the morning and evening.
There have been over 3000 reports of lionfish in their invasive range (mainly from south Florida and the Caribbean islands). However, lionfish are, thus far, fairly rare in the western Gulf of Mexico (relatively speaking) and Texas state waters (within 9 nautical miles). The most recent records show that there have been 66 reports of lionfish in the western Gulf of Mexico adjacent to the Texas coast (though there have most likely been many more unreported sightings) with two recently reported on Packery Channel Jetties in Corpus Christi.
In their invasive range, lionfish have been documented to live in densities almost five times higher than in their native range. This may be due to the lack of natural predation and abundance of prey organisms not well suited to avoiding such an efficient predator.
Due to their large head and mouth, lionfish are able to eat both fish and invertebrate (crabs, shrimp, etc.) prey up to half their body size. As they grow, lionfish tend to focus almost exclusively on fish prey which may include young of recreationally/commercially important species such as grouper and snapper.
Lionfish have very few predators in their invasive range due to their venomous spines though a few species of grouper and shark may be able to prey on them.
Due to their large mouth and unique hunting strategies, lionfish are incredibly efficient predators. Lionfish are able to eat prey up to half their body size and utilize hunting strategies such as hunting in groups, herding prey fish with their long pectoral fins, and flushing hidden organisms out of the sediments. This, combined with their ability for rapid reproduction and lack of predators throughout their invasive range, allows them to quickly populate natural and artificial reef structures and wipe out native reef fishes and invertebrates.
Lionfish possess venomous dorsal, pelvic, and anal spines laced with a powerful neurotoxin. While stings are generally not fatal, they can be extremely painful and should be taken seriously. If stung by a lionfish, you should immerse the wound in hot water (100-110°F) for 15-20 minutes, being careful not to burn skin, and seek medical attention immediately.
The spread of lionfish is being closely monitored by state and federal agencies. In Texas waters, lionfish have not yet become as prevalent as they have in other areas of the Gulf and Atlantic. Our best means of defense is to educate the public and encourage harvest of lionfish to remove them from our waters before they become an issue. We need to be pro-active in dealing with this potentially harmful invader. The more eyes we have on the water, the better.
If you see a lionfish you should report its location to local state or federal fisheries agencies:
- Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
Call: 361-972-6253 (Leslie Hartman)
- US Geological Survey:
If you have the means to safely harvest the lionfish (spearfishing is a very popular method), do so. Do not release lionfish if captured. Once the spines have been removed, lionfish are quite edible and can be filleted like many other reef fishes.