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Lionfish Control in the National Marine Sanctuaries: A Study of Lionfish Aggregating Devices and Ciguatera Levels

This project began in April 2014 and was completed in September 2015

The invasive lionfish is one of the most dominant top predators of reef communities in the temperate and tropical Atlantic Ocean. Lionfish are reducing native reef fish and marine invertebrate populations along the coast of the Southeast U.S. and in the Gulf of Mexico and pose a significant threat to the biodiversity of National Marine Sanctuaries in these regions. Through this project we will develop more efficient lionfish control strategies.

Why We Care
The invasive lionfish is now one of the most abundant top predators of reef communities in the temperate and tropical Atlantic Ocean. Lionfish threaten reef communities throughout the region due to their high densities (up to 500 lionfish per hectare) and generalist diet, which ultimately impacts the biodiversity and resilience of reef communities.

Lionfish pose a significant threat to the National Marine Sanctuaries of the southeast and Gulf of Mexico regions. Concern over the ecological effects of lionfish in these sanctuaries has increased as new findings have shown that lionfish are reducing native reef fish and marine invertebrate populations. Consumption of juveniles of large native reef fish may also hamper stock recovery of key economically and ecologically important species. The ability of reef ecosystems to resist continued change and recover from it is at considerable risk in the National Marine Sanctuaries of the southeastern Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Now that the entire southeast region of the U.S. has been invaded, densities of lionfish could increase if control actions are not taken. Development of lionfish control plans in the National Marine Sanctuaries is now imperative.

What We Are Doing
We will develop a more efficient control strategy for invasive lionfish that will expand the National Marine Sanctuaries capability to manage the lionfish invasion.

To date, most control efforts have been diver-based and focused on areas with high diver visitation and shallow water. Lionfish removal by divers is considered a promising strategy for local control (i.e., specific reefs or reef areas). However, the cost, unreliability of public effort, and depth constraints severely limit diver removals as a long-term control strategy. Several studies have attempted to develop trapping methods for lionfish based on conventional trapping techniques; however, none have been successful at developing a trap specifically for lionfish. Furthermore, bycatch of other reef fish is high, making conventional trapping impractical. Lionfish are, however, being landed regularly as bycatch in the Florida Keys spiny lobster fishery. Adult lionfish are also frequently observed congregating around complex structures like barrel sponges, the underside of ledges, and artificial reefs. Using these observations, we will test the use of lionfish aggregating devices (LADs) in both coral and hardbottom reef habitats to concentrate lionfish and make capture and development of control plans more practical and efficient.

In addition to development of LADs, we will conduct a series of ciguatera tests on lionfish from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary to measure their accumulation of ciguatoxins, a potent neurotoxin that causes series long-term health effects in humans. Given the scarcity of information on lionfish ciguatera levels and the uncertainty of lionfish ciguatera levels compared to native reef fish, we propose to conduct ciguatera testing on lionfish and several other species of reef fish in the National Marine Sanctuaries to better inform control efforts.

This study is broadly applicable to conservation areas both inside and outside of the National Marine Sanctuaries. As a result of this work, we will further develop lionfish control measures and provide the tools needed to effectively manage lionfish in the National Marine Sanctuaries. Depending on the capture efficiency of the developed LADs, this work could provide a much needed lionfish control tool for areas below diving depths in other marine protected areas.

The project team includes partners from the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary; Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary); the National Estuarine Research Reserve System; the National Park Service; the National Wildlife Refuges; the National Marine Fisheries Service; all coastal managers of the Southeast U.S., Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean; and the Reef Environmental Education Foundation.


lionfish infographic

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