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Invasive Lionfish - King of the Reef

Diving Deeper Shorts: Episode 29

lionfish swimming

Invasive Lionfish

Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific, but are now established along the southeast coast of the U.S., the Caribbean, and in parts of the Gulf of Mexico.


HOST: Lionfish are beautiful creatures, but are having a negative impact on coastal ecosystems. Get answers to a few common lionfish questions in today’s Diving Deeper Shorts as we revisit our April 2012 interview with James Morris from the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science.

Let’s listen in.

HOST: So James, can you tell us what an invasive species is first?

JAMES MORRIS: Yeah absolutely. There's lots of different definitions for invasive species but one that we defined by law actually is a non-native species that causes either, and most of the time it's both, economic harm or ecological harm to a new environment.

HOST: Where is the lionfish actually from?

JAMES MORRIS: Lionfish, there's actually two species of lionfish that were introduced into the Atlantic, the red lionfish or Pterois volitans and the devil firefish, Pterois miles. And the Pterois volitans, the red lionfish is from the Pacific Ocean and it's distributed as far as Australia and the Pacific Islands. The devil firefish is actually from the Red Sea and Indian Ocean region and they tend to overlap in terms of range in Indonesia. The native range is very broad and they've now become invasive.

HOST: So, how did they get then into our waters, in the Southeast U.S., Caribbean, kind of that region?

JAMES MORRIS: Well, we're not 100 percent sure because no one actually observed someone releasing lionfish into the Atlantic, but we have a few clues. One clue is that lionfish were heavily imported in the past into the U.S. They are a very popular marine ornamental species, people like to hold them in their aquarium and have them as pets. They're very beautiful, very ornate fish. They're kind of exotic because they are a scorpion fish, they are venomous, and just by virtue of their presence and their volume being imported to the U.S., we suspect that they were probably released from the aquarium trade.

HOST: So, it is safe to eat and handle lionfish?

JAMES MORRIS: It is. It's safe if you handle it properly. We need to be clear in that there's a difference between a venomous fish and a poisonous fish. Poisonous fish is a fish that essentially has a toxin or poison in its flesh that you will get sick from eating it. A venomous fish is a fish that has a venom somewhere in its body, it's usually not in the flesh, that would be poisonous, but along the spines or in the teeth or some type of usually bony structures of the fish. In the case of lionfish, the venom is located only in the spines of the fish, it has dorsal, pelvic, and anal spines. The venom glands are located along grooves of the spine. There is no venomous sac at the base of the spine as is commonly said. That venom gland actually goes along the grooves of the spine. If those spines are removed before cleaning the fish, then there's no risk there. There are field guides. There are lots of instructions now that are available to help people learn how to clean the fish.

HOST: That's all for today's Diving Deeper Shorts, thanks for tuning in. Want to learn more? See our show notes for a link to the full episode. Diving Deeper is back in two weeks.

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