Course:CONS200/2020/Ecological impacts of lionfish invasion in Central America

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Red lionfish at the Aquazoo (aquarium) in the Zoo Schmiding in Schmiding near Bad Schallerbach, Austria.
Pterois volitans (Linnaeus, 1758), Photographed by: Michael Gäbler

The common lionfish (Pterosis volitans and P. miles), a midsized fish found in the Indo-Pacific Ocean, was documented in 1985 as a non-indigenous species off the coast of Florida[1]. Since the 2000s, the fish is classified as an invasive species off the East Coast of the U.S. and the Caribbean, where its expanding populations continues to significantly reduce coral-reef fish communities and disrupt native ecosystems[2].

Several response plans have been created to address the problem at both regional and international scales. In the United States, the National Marine Fisheries Service released a National Marine Sanctuaries Lionfish Response Plan which applies within U.S. waters. Central American countries also independently developed plans, but without legal jurisdiction, management of lionfish invasion was limited. In 2010, the 24th General Conference of the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) created an ad-hoc committee that designed a framework facilitating collaboration between existing programs and national stakeholders to better reduce the widening scope of lionfish impacts.

Because of its unique biological characteristics and behaviors, lionfish populations continue to persist in large numbers. Current management strategies include lionfish spearfishing (Usseglio, 2017), marketing for consumption and education campaigns.

Ecology of lionfish

Lionfish Range and Preferred Habitats

There are currently 12 species identified for Pterois genus, Andover lionfish, Spot-fin lionfish, Red Sea lionfish, and etc. Lionfish species spread widely all over the world, from Atlantic Ocean to Indian Ocean to Pacific Ocean, and it is native to Indo-Pacific as a predator. When talking about invasion, it is most invasive nowadays in the west Atlantic, Mediterranean Sea, and Caribbean Sea. Lionfish prefer to live in harbors and some turbid inshore areas, and they can also be found at the rocky surfaces, seaward edges of coral and so on.

Mode of Invasion and Traits Contributing to Spread

The mode of invasion for lionfish is the inhabitation of reef areas, which may cause the native species that live there move toward worse conditions and cause the decline for other species and reefs. Lionfish can spread in such a great success because there is much nutrient availability for lionfish, and they do not have specific predators. Data shows that lionfish has ability to survive and even reproduce in a brand-new environment, and they can also occupy a area in a short amount of time.[2]

Other Factors Contributing to Spread

Lionfish have a wide range of preys to choose from their habitats. They can eat fished, mollusks, and up to 6 species in total. They are good predator with excellent hunting skills, especially when they use the currents to capture preys. Beside this, the lionfish were found in many different places, like reefs, rocky mountains, mangroves, and so on, which show that lionfish can adapt well in different temperature and salinity conditions, even depths range from 1m to 300m are their homes.[2]

Ecological impacts caused by lionfish

Scope of Damage

Current [1][2]

lionfish are mainly fish-eater with the species native to the area, Researchers have discovered that a single lionfish residing on a coral reef can reduce recruitment of native reef fish by 79 percent[3] . Lionfish normally feed on snappers and groupers and other native smaller size fish to be consumed. In relation to massive lionfish consuming cased impact on local commercial and recreational fisheries’ negative results.

As the lionfish quick population growth, it can be found between 1 to 1,000 feet depths from the southeast U.S. coastline. Lionfish have added extreme stress in coral reefs, as they eat most of the herbivores in local area, which caused uncontrollable algal growth that affected coral reefs’ health.


Scientists by using an Ecopath - with - Ecosim model made a hypothesize to predicting the impact of lionfish could affect in subtropical food web model. A couple of prediction is provided, first the reduction of prey populations and tactics predator will affect most dramatically on reef fish, and some of local economic and ecological will be affected to fishermen, lutjanids, groupers, and snappers will be reduced in size of fishing availability.

Aquatic Impacts

Aquatic Community Shifts

Lionfish have already been shown to overpopulate reef areas and display aggressive tendencies, forcing native species to move to waters where conditions might be less than desirable. As the Lionfish move to central america, it qucikly took over of the highest amount in central america compare to groupers and other invasive fish.

Human Impacts

Although lionfish have invasive in central America, they are known for their venomous fin rays, an uncommon feature among marine fish in the East Coast coral reefs[3]. The potency of their venom makes them excellent predators and hazardous to fishermen and divers. [2] However people come up by eating Lionfish to reduce the size of the population, but the quick growth can never be caught up.

Management, regulation and policy

International Collaboration and Institutional Regional Response

The severity of the lionfish invasion[6] and projections of their unencumbered spread[7] gained international recognition in 2010, prompting the formation of an ad hoc committee known as the Regional Lionfish Committee during the 24th International Coral Reef Initiative[8]. The committee produced the Regional Strategy for the Control of Invasive Lionfish in the Wider Caribbean, which aims to coordinate existing response strategies or help create regional responses, improve monitoring efforts, legislation, and public awareness. The creation of the plan was overseen by the UNEP - Caribbean Environment Programme, Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife – Regional Activity Center, Comision Nacional de Areas Naturales Mexico, NOAA, and Reef Check Foundation Dominican Republic[8]. Existing and new response plans have varied but can roughly fall into three patterns: government led, NGO led, and private interest parties.

Government led response

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

Some regions have adopted formal plans written either under government regulation or hired consultations with implementation often supported with government funding. The United States, for example, has focused its efforts through both federal and Florida state’s initiative. Under the United States National Marine Sanctuaries Program, four marine protected areas (MPAs), Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary and Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, were identified to be under threat of invasion. In 2015, the NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries Lionfish Response Plan was created to address these MPAs[9]. Apart from shared practices in management, control mechanisms, education and research focus, the response plan prompted a legislative change to allow target lionfish removal from “no take zones”, as well as establishing the Aquatic Nuisance Task Force of Lionfish. Florida State has also been uniquely placed as a leader in lionfish control efforts, as the headquarters of Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), an international marine conservation organization that leads a marine Invasive Species Program which provides scientific, education and public engagement support. Similarly, the U.S. Virgin Islands have adopted a formal approach of publishing a response plan targeting MPAs[10] and serves as headquarters to an active non-governmental agency that has prioritized lionfish management, the Caribbean Ocean Restoration and Education Foundation (C.O.R.E).

Non-governmental and non-profit led response

Other regions lack a formal written response plan and are typically led by NGOS with varying degrees of support from the government. For example,  the Bahamas lionfish invasion control is handled by the governmentally designated Bahama National Trust[11]. In contrast, the Dominican Republic efforts are led by the privately started NGO Reef Check Dominican Republic, which notably launched a successful crowdfunding campaign on GlobalGiving to fund its activities.

Private interest parties

Public education and outreach and management strategies have sparked several informal independent groups and individuals to partake in lionfish conservation[12][13]. These interests groups or individuals can be pro-environmentally motivated, such as the Robots in Service of the Environment (RSE) which was established after the founder encountered a lionfish and the ecological destruction it left while diving in the Bahamas, economically motivated[14] (i.e. the commercialization of lionfish for consumption), or a blend of the two[15] (e.g. lionfish derbies).


Invasive species control can be approached several ways but generally results in either eradication, mitigation (or control) or prevention measures[16].The scientific community has acknowledged that complete eradication of lionfish from the Atlantic is impossible because of its spawning habits (pelagic broadcast spawning, every four days) and difficulty of removal[17], whether by predation, parasitic or human means. Prevention measures against species in marine environments are notoriously difficult[18] and lionfish, which is believed to have few geographical barriers to limit its mobility and have vast areas suitable for colonization[19], are no different. For these reasons, lionfish, which are also unbounded by geographical jurisdiction, are being managed through internationally collaborative efforts with the goal of mitigation[20]. A management response plan typically is composed of several means which can include research, early detection and response, monitoring, assessment, public education and outreach, all geared towards lowering population densities by targeted removals.[21]

Research, monitoring and assessment

A researcher looking at a lionfish in the U.S. Virgin Islands

Basic lionfish ecology and how it relates to invasive species models, such as mode of introduction, potential or existing range and factors contributing to persistence, continues to be researched by scientists[22]. Overall, individual characteristics of lionfish[23], observed ecological impact[24], ecosystem community shifts[25] and basic predator-prey[26][27] relationships are well research, but scientists have noted that knowledge gaps on the inner workings of complex trophic relationships, functional roles and food webs in marine ecosystems is a challenge in understanding the future behavior of lionfish and its ecological impacts.[28] One paper published in 2020, raised concerns over scientific literature focusing predominantly on the conspicuous adult stage of lionfish, pointing out that the larval stage may have significant negative impacts on marine ecosystems as they invade plankton and displace other fish larvae.[29]

Monitoring and assessment in some regions have shown lionfish densities under control[30], but research has shown that lower density may not be just attributed to direct human intervention (i.e. hunting and removals). The founder effect has been attributed to massive declines in populations after an ulcerative pathogen emerged in 2017.[31] Studies have also shown that in high density areas intraspecies competition of lionfish can result in cannibalism[32] and some reports state that native species have begun to prey on them as well.[33] Native shark predation may or may not be a result of divers attempting to “train” sharks to recognize lionfish as prey.[34] This strategy, which usually involves individuals spear-feeding sharks lionfish, has been controversial with the greatest fear that sharks will attack divers as they begin to associate them with food.

Outside of studying the ecological aspects of lionfish, research has also focused on supporting market-based conservation strategies, such as supporting the commercialization of lionfish by evaluating levels of ciguatera, a harmful toxin found in reef fish, in order to validate the safety of its consumption.[35] The move has sparked some controversy; however, media messaging appears to show pro-ecological values winning over the risk of fish poisoning.[2]

Public engagement and media

Absence of a native predator has forced conservationists to consider biocontrol methods (i.e. culling), which generally has controversial public reception in invasive species scenarios (e.g. trophy hunting, 1997 Project Isabela[36], European starling culling in North America) as a result of differing ethical and moral values as well as failures resulting from misunderstood ecosystem functional roles or lack of consideration of social impacts.[37] A study found that 80% of respondents to a survey supported killing lionfish to protect Caribbean reefs, and this consolidation of the public favoring biocontrol, results from the media hyperbolizing and demonizing the lionfish as uncontested ravagers of coral reefs and reconciling moral dilemmas with economic incentives (e.g. bounties, commercial fishing, lionfish derbies, culinary events etc.).[2] The enthusiastic support has resulted in regions focusing on local targeted removal of lionfish and examining the viability of commercializing the efforts.[38]

Options for future remedial action(s)

Groups such as the Lionfish university work hard to assist with the cause. They work directly with the NOAA on cheap traps which may help catch a large number of lionfish economically. This can also be of great benefit to doing things like putting lionfish on the menu when you go out for lunch or dinner, as it provides the opportunity and economic justification for more divers to catch more of this particular species.


Emerging technology

A second MQP team will work on the robot's global navigation system up next for the robot. The idea is that the robots will provide a source of income for fishermen who would sell the lionfish to local restaurants, in addition to reducing the lionfish threat to reefs. The teaching comes from learning by computer. The students at WPI showed their robot thousands of pictures of lionfish of various colours, taken from different angles and with different lighting conditions, teaching it to identify a lionfish with more than 95 percent accuracy. The robot even had pictures of human divers to teach him in what is not to stop shooting at all.

How to respond to predicted spread and Further considerations

Because of climate change and future invasions the ranges of several predators are expected to expand. The new model – a comprehensive way to look at behavioural characteristics – is intended to help scientists and conservationists better understand how predators choose their prey.In the case of lionfish, the scientists hope the model will help them find areas where native species are most vulnerable as the invasion spreads to the lionfish's novel stalking hunting strategy.

External Links



Robots in Service of the Environment


  1. 1.0 1.1 Morris, J.A., Jr., and P.E. Whitfield. (2009). Biology, Ecology, Control and Management of the Invasive Indo-Pacific Lionfish: An Updated Integrated Assessment.  NOAA Technical Memorandum NOS NCCOS. 99, 57.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Carballo-Cardenas, E. C. (2015). "Controversies and consensus on the lionfish invasion in the Western Atlantic Ocean". Ecology and Society. 20(3).
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Impacts of Invasive Lionfish".
  4. Arias-González, J. E., González-Gándara, C., Luis Cabrera, J., & Christensen, V. (2011). "Predicted impact of the invasive lionfish pterois volitans on the food web of a caribbean coral reef". Environmental Research. 111(7): 917–925.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. "Predicting impacts of lionfish (Pterois volitans) invasion in a coastal ecosystem of southern Brazil".
  6. Whitfield, P.E., Hare, J.A., David, A.W. et al. Abundance estimates of the Indo-Pacific lionfish Pterois volitans/miles complex in the Western North Atlantic. Biological Invasions 9, 53–64 (2007).
  7. Côté, I. M., & Smith, N. S. (2018). The lionfish pterois sp. invasion: Has the worst-case scenario come to pass? Journal of Fish Biology, 92(3), 660-689.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Gómez Lozano, R., L. Anderson, J.L. Akins, D.S.A. Buddo, G. García-Moliner, F. Gourdin, M. Laurent, C. Lilyestrom, J.A. Morris, Jr., N. Ramnanan, and R. Torres. 2013. Regional Strategy for the Control of Invasive Lionfish in the Wider Caribbean. International Coral Reef Initiative, 31 pp.
  9. Johnston, M.A., Gittings, S.R., and Morris, J.A., Jr. 2015. NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries Lionfish Response Plan (2015-2018): Responding, Controlling, and Adapting to an Active Marine Invasion. Marine Sanctuaries Conservation Series ONMS-15-01. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Silver Spring, MD. 55 pp.
  10. Kilgo, J.M., Brown, J., Castillo, B., Travis, J., Edwards, K., Rubattino, J., Packauslkas, N., Hills-Starr, Z. and N. Gustafson. 2014. Lionfish Response Management Plan U.S. Virgin Islands: Lionfish Response Management Plan Update. 79 pp.
  11. Sealey, K.S., Anderson, L., Stewart, D. and N. Smith.  2009. The Invasion of Indo-Pacific lionfish in the Bahamas: Challenges for a national response plan. International Coral Reef Initiative, 10 pp.
  12. Gupta, A. 2009. Invasion of the Lionfish. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from:
  13. MacGregor, J. 2018. The lionfish have invaded, but a ragtag army of divers and chefs are fighting back. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from:
  14. Chapman, J. K., Anderson, L. G., Gough, C. L., & Harris, A. R. (2016). Working up an appetite for lionfish: a market-based approach to manage the invasion of Pterois volitans in Belize. Marine Policy, 73, 256-262.
  15. Malpica-Cruz, L., Chaves, L. C., & Côté, I. M. (2016). Managing marine invasive species through public participation: Lionfish derbies as a case study. Marine Policy, 74, 158-164.
  16. Young, T. R. (2006). National and regional legislation for promotion and support to the prevention, control, and eradication of invasive species.
  17. De León, R., Vane, K., Bertuol, P., Chamberland, V. C., Simal, F., Imms, E., & Vermeij, M. J. (2013). Effectiveness of lionfish removal efforts in the southern Caribbean. Endangered Species Research, 22(2), 175-182.
  18. Molnar, J. L., Gamboa, R. L., Revenga, C., & Spalding, M. D. (2008). Assessing the global threat of invasive species to marine biodiversity. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 6(9), 485-492.
  19. Kimball, M. E., Miller, J. M., Whitfield, P. E., & Hare, J. A. (2004). Thermal tolerance and potential distribution of invasive lionfish (Pterois volitans/miles complex) on the east coast of the United States. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 283, 269-278.
  20. Graham, R. E., & Fanning, L. M. (2017). A comparison of eight country plans for the invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish in the wider Caribbean. Global ecology and conservation, 12, 253-262. Betancur‐R, R., Hines, A., Acero P, A., Ortí, G., Wilbur, A. E., & Freshwater, D. W. (2011).
  21. Graham, R. E., & Fanning, L. M. (2017). A comparison of eight country plans for the invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish in the wider Caribbean. Global ecology and conservation, 12, 253-262. Betancur‐R, R., Hines, A., Acero P, A., Ortí, G., Wilbur, A. E., & Freshwater, D. W. (2011).
  22. Betancur‐R, R., Hines, A., Acero P, A., Ortí, G., Wilbur, A. E., & Freshwater, D. W. (2011). Reconstructing the lionfish invasion: insights into Greater Caribbean biogeography. Journal of Biogeography, 38(7), 1281-1293.
  23. Morris, J. A., & Whitfield, P. E. (2009). Biology, ecology, control and management of the invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish: an updated integrated assessment.
  24. Muñoz, R. C., Currin, C. A., & Whitfield, P. E. (2011). Diet of invasive lionfish on hard bottom reefs of the Southeast USA: insights from stomach contents and stable isotopes. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 432, 181-193.
  25. Lesser, M. P., & Slattery, M. (2011). Phase shift to algal dominated communities at mesophotic depths associated with lionfish (Pterois volitans) invasion on a Bahamian coral reef. Biological Invasions, 13(8), 1855-1868.
  26. Black, A. N., Weimann, S. R., Imhoff, V. E., Richter, M. L., & Itzkowitz, M. (2014). A differential prey response to invasive lionfish, Pterois volitans: prey naiveté and risk-sensitive courtship. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 460, 1-7.
  27. Marsh-Hunkin, K. E., Gochfeld, D. J., & Slattery, M. (2013). Antipredator responses to invasive lionfish, Pterois volitans: interspecific differences in cue utilization by two coral reef gobies. Marine biology, 160(4), 1029-1040.
  28. Layman, C. A., & Allgeier, J. E. (2012). Characterizing trophic ecology of generalist consumers: a case study of the invasive lionfish in The Bahamas. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 448, 131-141.
  29. Sponaugle, S., Gleiber, M., Shulzitski, K., & Cowen, R. (2019). There’s a new kid in town: Lionfish invasion of the plankton. Biological Invasions.
  30. Frazer, T. K., Jacoby, C. A., Edwards, M. A., Barry, S. C., & Manfrino, C. M. (2012). Coping with the lionfish invasion: can targeted removals yield beneficial effects?. Reviews in Fisheries Science, 20(4), 185-191.
  31. Harris, H. E., Fogg, A. Q., Allen, M. S., Ahrens, R. N., & Patterson, W. F. (2020). precipitous Declines in northern Gulf of Mexico Invasive Lionfish populations following the emergence of an Ulcerative Skin Disease. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 1-17.
  32. Dahl, K. A., Portnoy, D. S., Hogan, J. D., Johnson, J. E., Gold, J. R., & Patterson, W. F. (2018). Genotyping confirms significant cannibalism in northern Gulf of Mexico invasive red lionfish, Pterois volitans. Biological invasions, 20(12), 3513-3526.
  33. Mumby, P. J., Harborne, A. R., & Brumbaugh, D. R. (2011). Grouper as a natural biocontrol of invasive lionfish. PloS one, 6(6).
  34. Fears, D. 2014. Divers try spoon feeding lionfish to sharks, a method that could come back to bite them. Invasive Species Council of BC. Retrieved from:
  35. Wilcox, C. L., & Hixon, M. A. (2015). False positive tests for ciguatera may derail efforts to control invasive lionfish. Environmental Biology of Fishes, 98(3), 961-969.
  36. Bocci, P. (2017). Tangles of care: Killing goats to save tortoises on the Galápagos Islands. Cultural Anthropology, 32(3), 424-449.
  37. Warner, K. D. (2012). Fighting pathophobia: how to construct constructive public engagement with biocontrol for nature without augmenting public fears. BioControl, 57(2), 307-317.
  38. Gallagher, S. E. (2013). Establishing a culinary market for lionfish species through a market-based organization to mitigate the environmental impacts of the invasive species (Doctoral dissertation, College of Charleston).
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