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Diving Deeper: The Lionfish Invasion Part II: Controlling the Spread

Episode 48 (May 23, 2013)

HOST: Welcome to Diving Deeper where we explore important ocean topics with National Ocean Service experts. I'm your host Kate Nielsen.

Back to talk to us today is James Morris for part two of our discussion on lionfish. Today we will explore what we can do to stop the lionfish invasion as well as NOAA's role. Thanks James for joining us again on Diving Deeper.

JAMES MORRIS: Hi Kate, so glad to be here.

HOST: So James, in our last episode, I think you really painted the picture for us that this is a problem, it's a big problem, it's a growing problem. What kinds of things can we do, can people do to help stop the growth of lionfish?

JAMES MORRIS: Absolutely. So we are confident that lionfish can be controlled in some places. Some of those places that lionfish control is a priority are places like our very important national marine sanctuaries. We know that these are places that the American public has designated as special, special for conservation, special because of the biodiversity that they hold, special because of their importance because of tourism and ecosystem services that they provide.

And we know that we can control lionfish in some places that have small boundaries, places that intensive efforts to remove them can be marshaled and those kinds of things. We also know routine culling can happen in areas outside of sanctuaries such as artificial reefs. The very purpose of building an artificial reef is really jeopardized by lionfish. If you think about an artificial reef as being important for nursery habitat for reef fish or sort of providing refugia and those kind of things, lionfish are threatening the very purpose of building those artificial reefs. So we are talking with and working with various artificial reef programs to being thinking about how to do lionfish control in their artificial reef program, which artificial reefs are most important, if you have resources to deploy control where are you going to do it, how are you going to decide, how are you going to monitor the effectiveness of those control efforts and those kinds of things.

So, a lot of our work now is trying to help domestic as well as our international partners with lionfish control. And we're very excited to see some of the success with our sister agency in Mexico, CONANP, that works to manage their marine parks along the Yucatan. We have a great collaboration with them looking at various control strategies for lionfish and one of the things that we can learn from our Mexican partners in this is that lionfish control is really a community response. That it requires the restaurant/tourism community, the dive operators, the commercial fishermen - everyone is in this problem together and no single sector of the community can singlely address the problem - that it really takes everyone working together, having a coordinating body to work with all those entities.

HOST: James, can you tell us more about this venom defense that lionfish have. How do people catch lionfish and how do they do this safely?

JAMES MORRIS: Lionfish venom is located in the spines of lionfish. And I should also point out that people in their native range have been eating lionfish forever. It's a fairly good meat to eat actually. It's a white, flaky meat. The taste is a reef fish taste. And scorpion fish have been harvested commercially for many, many years. When we think about some of the major scorpionid fisheries - one is the rockfish fishery of the West Coast. It's a large fishery and it's based on harvesting a scorpion fish just like lionfish and rockfish have the same venom basically that lionfish do. It's a neurotoxin from the spines and so the idea of harvesting lionfish as a food fish is really not a novel or new concept. There is a lot of attention right now about controlling invasive species through "eat 'em to beat 'em" types of approaches and certainly we include that as a type of control strategy, and even probably it's now understood to be really the most effective way to marshal resources for control.

Certainly, we're good at fishing, we have overharvested many fish in the past and certainly we're good at catching things and harvesting things so certainly applying that fishing pressure to lionfish is one strategy to control them. But there's challenges with that type of approach. One of the challenges is that this fish is a reef fish that doesn't come out from the reef that easily. It likes to stay hooked into those nooks and crannies for the most part and it doesn't necessarily recruit to hook and line like a snapper or a grouper does. When you drop your hook on the reef, you can catch a lionfish, but not very often. They don't recruit very frequently into the fishery.

They are however recruiting into some trap fisheries, not all trap fisheries, but some trap fisheries like the lobster fishery of the Keys and in places in the Caribbean where they have other types of fish traps. So we are seeing now where lionfish are beginning to show up in commercial markets, pretty regularly from these trap fisheries. Even in high biomass there's been some reports of significant lionfish landings as bycatch in some of these trap fisheries.

So the overall role that harvesting or lionfish as bycatch, removing them by specific fisheries, the overall role that that could have in terms of local population control is really yet to be understood or documented. We hope and like to think that those fisheries can use that bycatch as supplemental income. That that control effort, removal effort, will have an impact on the local population, but that really has yet to be really demonstrated.

HOST: Is it safe to eat lionfish? Is there any venom that's left in the fish after you remove the spines? And is there anything else health-wise that we should be concerned about when eating the lionfish?

JAMES MORRIS: Sure. So a common strategy is to actually remove the spines when you are cleaning the fish and there are available instructions now that you can find online where folks provide instructions on how to prepare lionfish for cooking. There's even a cookbook that was produced by one of our partners that we work closely with, the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, where they provide some instructions in the cookbook about how to safely clean and prepare lionfish.

The venom itself is in the spines. It's not a poison that's in the flesh. And some folks will confuse venom with poison, in this case, lionfish venom is a venom located in the spine.

One concern that has come up a lot recently is the type of toxin that can accumulate in some reef fishes from some locations called ciguatoxin. And ciguatoxin is a neurotoxin that is derived from types of algae called dinoflagellates, that can harbor, can accumulate these ciguatoxins in the flesh. There have been areas around the Caribbean that have been known to have issues where the reef fish will have high levels of ciguatoxin that will be toxic to people. We think that lionfish, as a reef fish, may be capable of accumulating ciguatoxins. Certainly, we've been collaborating with the Food and Drug Administration to provide analytical tools and advice about ciguatoxin concerns and they recently just added lionfish to the list of reef fish that could possibly have ciguatoxin in their flesh. This is really not new information, we sort of knew that. Lionfish are a reef fish, like other reef fish, can become ciguatoxic.

So as a consumer and someone interested in eating lionfish, we certainly encourage people to have the same level of awareness for eating lionfish that they would for snapper or grouper or any of the other reef fish that they might be consuming. If you're from a location that traditionally doesn't have problems with ciguateria, consult with your local health officials on that if you're concerned about it and be aware. We are working in our laboratory though to understand more about the ecology of ciguatera fish poisoning and the ecology of harmful algaes that cause ciguatera.

So that's a very active research line for us and we're working to use those analytical tools that we have developed in our laboratory to study ciguatoxin analysis to do some baseline assessments in the region looking at ciguatera in lionfish. We hope to have some new information about lionfish specifically on ciguatera fish poisoning in the future.

HOST: OK, well that will be very interesting, we'll definitely stay tuned on that. We talked about a lot of different control methods that are being explored, there's a lot of resources out there for coastal managers in these different areas to look at. What about for somebody who's not a coastal manager, is there a role that they can play in helping to stop the lionfish invasion?

JAMES MORRIS: Certainly lionfish control takes a community. It really takes everyone. From the coastal manger to the school teacher to the restaurant and food industry to the reef enthusiasts and conservation-minded folks to the dive operators. It really takes everyone. And we have really been impressed over the years of how some communities have responded aggressively, want to protect our reefs types of initiatives and adopt a reef types of initiatives, we have folks that literally go out on a regular basis and prune and cull lionfish off of reefs because they want to conserve those reefs. And I think those are very noble efforts. They're diving with a purpose, they're getting in the water and they are making a difference on those reefs. And when we think about the overall impacts of those patchy areas, we have to think about it in terms of everyone doing their part - whether it's becoming more aware, encouraging your friends and colleagues to become more aware of this problem and to learn about it and to teach about the impacts of invasive species and to reach a new place in our society about this type of biological pollution and the role that it can have and to think about ways that we can prevent this from happening again. Those are all important things that we need to continue to work on.

HOST: So James we've talked a lot about all of the players that are involved both at the local community up to your international partners, but what is NOAA's role and specifically what is the National Ocean Service's role with lionfish?

JAMES MORRIS: Well, that's a really good question. So the lionfish issue as we've talked about before is really a biological pollution, coastal planning, trust/resource stewardship problem so many times people think of the lionfish invasion as being a fishery issue and really it's much larger than that. Being in the National Ocean Service, we are working on coastal planning, we're working on issues relating to coastal ecosystem stressors, certainly lionfish is one of those stressors, it impacts marine protected areas like sanctuaries. We have to work to develop management plans to control this invasive species and to work with managers to develop resources and provide those tools and services to help them make decisions about this particular problem, which in this case is invasive species.

So in our laboratory and in our program office, we're working very hard to work on developing those tools and services to help managers make those decisions about particularly controlling this invasive species.

HOST: So James, do you have any final closing words for our listeners today?

JAMES MORRIS: Thank you Kate for hosting this podcast and I guess in closing my only comment would be that we are really learning for the first time how to deal with a reef fish invasion that's of this magnitude in this region of the world. And certainly there are mistakes being made and there are hard lessons that are being learned and that we are going to be dealing with this invasion really forever or until some technological or solution comes forward. And that we need to take these lessons and apply them so that we can change this situation and change the probability of this happening again, we can make that lower. And so we need to think about how this invasion occurred and we need to think about how the lack of resilience in our coastal ecosystems to invasions like this and consider those things as part of our management solutions.

HOST: Thanks James for joining us to wrap up our discussion on lionfish. To learn more, please check out our show notes on

That's all for today's show. Remember, if you have questions on this episode or the National Ocean Service in general, you can contact us at And if you're on social media, don't forget you can find us, it's usoceangov, on Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube; and noaaocean on Twitter and Pinterest. Please join us for our next episode in two weeks.