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The Invasive Lionfish

Filleting the Lion

The Lionfish Invasion! NOS Education

NOAA Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research

Scientists Say Fishing Could Control Unwelcome Lionfish on Some Reefs


Coastal communities and island nations throughout the Southeast Atlantic and Caribbean are trying to stem the tide of these comely yet unwelcome "lions of the sea."

Scientists at NOS’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) and their colleagues just completed a study suggesting that approximately one-quarter of an adult lionfish population would have to be removed monthly to reduce the invasion rate of lionfish, a native Indo-Pacific species that has invaded Atlantic and Caribbean waters in recent years. NCCOS collaborated with NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center and North Carolina State University on the study, which provides a preliminary target for coastal communities and island nations trying to stem the tide of the comely yet unwelcome “lions.”

The lionfish’s venomous spines, together with its legendary appetite, have the potential to compete with native reef fish and could affect reefs’ trophic (food-web) processes at many levels.

"In some locations, lionfish have drastically altered the biodiversity of the reef," says James Morris, one of the study researchers and an ecologist at NCCOS’s Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research in Beaufort, North Carolina. In that state, local densities of the species increased 700 percent between 2004 and 2008.

Filet-and-Eat Rather than Catch-and-Release

fisherman cutting a lionfish

A fisherman on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula carefully removes the venomous spines from a lionfish before sending it to market for human consumption. Beneath the fish's prickly exterior lie tender, tasty filets.

While the one-quarter reduction target represents a major fishing effort that might not be feasible in some areas, such as in the expansive lionfish communities off the U.S. Southeast Coast, it could be possible in areas where the species’ habitat is more circumscribed, as it is around some of the Caribbean islands.

The island nation of Turks and Caicos has taken up the challenge, encouraging fishermen to “lion hunt” by holding tournaments and offering prizes for the largest catch. A lionfishery might even prove beneficial to island economies, because beneath the fish’s prickly exterior lies tender, tasty fillets.

In fact, Morris and his NOAA colleagues recently launched an “Eat Lionfish” campaign to make people aware that they can feel good (for a change) about “overfishing” a reef fish and actually helping the fragile reef environment.