Lionfish are a venomous invasive marine species considered one of the top predators in many coral reef environments in the Atlantic.
Several juvenile lionfish, normally native to the Indo-Pacific, were spotted recently in NOAA's Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, located 70 to 115 miles off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico. This is the first instance of lionfish in the sanctuary since the species spread to U.S. East Coast waters in 2000.
Recreational divers reported seeing a lionfish at West Flower Garden Bank on July 20 and a second fish at Stetson Bank on July 27. A sanctuary researcher found a third lionfish on August 3 at West Flower Garden Bank. That fish was captured and is in a tank at the sanctuary's Galveston office. Another lionfish was observed at East Flower Garden Bank on August 8.
Lionfish consume important commercial fish and crustacean species in their juvenile stage – including snapper, grouper, and shrimp, as well as other reef fish. For this reason, sanctuary resource managers and scientists are concerned about the potential impact lionfish could have on the coral reef ecosystem, which supports the tourism and fishing industries. Lionfish also have venomous spines, placing divers and fishermen at risk from their painful stings.
As the sanctuary formulates a strategy to respond to this threat, the diving and fishing public is encouraged to report sightings and locations of lionfish to the sanctuary office, by phone at 409-621-5151 x114. The information will be used to track the progress and impacts of the invasion, and enable responders to focus their removal efforts. The public can also help track the invasion by submitting reports to the Reef Environmental Education Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey.
NOAA's Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary is part of the National Marine Sanctuary System which includes 13 sanctuaries and one national marine monument. It protects 56 square miles of critical marine habitat in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico. The coral reefs and coral-sponge communities support a variety of recreationally and commercially important species, including snappers, groupers, sea turtles, manta rays, and sharks.