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Rethinking the Lionfish Invasion (Hint: It’s still a problem)

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bright lionfish facing left from side in blue-green water

The Lionfish Is Invasive to North Carolina

The lionfish is beautiful. But…Lionfish are an invasive species that are native to the Pacific Ocean. Scientists aren’t sure when they managed to get from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean or how (more on that in a moment.)  But the unusual looking creature is a problem for several reasons.

First, it’s dangerous. In fact, NOAA warns divers and anglers to “be extremely cautious and avoid contact with the venomous spines of the lionfish.”  If someone is stung by the spines, the agency advises seeking medical attention right away.

In addition, there’s concern about what the lionfish may do to North Carolina’s commercial and recreational fishing industry. That’s because lionfish are found offshore in deeper water, where the fish both commercial and recreational angler thrive and mature. Here’s what the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality says: “There is also increasing concern among fishery scientists that lionfish, having no natural enemies, may adversely impact natural fish populations.” That’s right, the lionfish will eat up all of the fish.

Where did they come from?

But here’s the catch.

Scientists have theorized for years that someone in Florida unleashed the attractive but nasty fish when they dumped their aquarium into open water.

Now, the U.S. Geological Service says in a recent Facebook post the invasive species may have been introduced in North Carolina or the Bahamas.

The new theory is based on evidence from DNA testing of 1800 lionfish caught along the East Coast. The findings show the Florida lionfish did not share the same DNA variations as those found in the Bahamas, North Carolina and Bermuda.

Because lionfish were first reported off the Florida coast in 1985, many scientists thought Florida was where the invasive fish first made contact with the Atlantic Ocean and it quickly spread into the western North Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, eating everything along the way.

But the new data shows the lionfish may have been introduced in the Bahamas or North Carolina or possibly in multiple locations, including the Bahamas, North Carolina and/or Florida.

Researchers say that indicates Florida was either a later introduction site or the lionfish arrived offshore of the sunshine state from areas to the north.

It doesn’t change the fact the lionfish is a problem. It just increases the mystery of how the problem arrived on the coast.

To learn more about the lionfish, watch this Sci NC story.


Stopping the Invasion of the Lionfish

Asian Lionfish has been spreading north since its introduction in the 1980s off Florida, collapsing the reef food webs and reducing the area of the coral reefs. The lionfish is an invasive species that threatens the state's commercial fishing industry because they eat the foods that grouper and snapper eat, along with juvenile grouper and snapper. Lionfish have no known predators and have a rapid reproduction rate, which is why they are taking over the reef ecosystem. Right now, it appears the only way to attempt to control this invasive species is to catch them and kill them. That's why More than a dozen coastal businesses, non-profits, and government agencies joined together this summer to sponsor the state's first lionfish derby. Watch as marine ecologists use systems to interpret marine ecosystem data and make predictions about the future of North Carolina's coastline.