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Frequently Asked Questions About Lionfish

 

1. Where did lionfish come from?

Lionfish are native to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Red Lionfish photo

2. What do lionfish look like? What species are lionfish?

Lionfish belong to the Family Scorpaenidae (Scorpionfishes) and have large heads, from one-third to one-half of their length. They have numerous head spines and venomous dorsal, pectoral, and anal spines. The red lionfish (Pterois volitans) has greatly elongated dorsal fin spines (11 dorsal and 7 anal spines); the membranes of all fins are spotted, and the body is white or cream colored with reddish-brown vertical stripes. The devil firefish (Pterois miles) looks very similar to the red lionfish but has fewer dorsal and anal fin rays (10 dorsa and 6 anal spines), and the color is darker.

Devil Firefish photo

3. Which species of lionfish do we have?

Recent genetic work shows that lionfish along the East Coast of the United States and those in Bermuda, Bahamas, Caribbean, Mexico, and Central & South America are primarily red lionfish (97%) with a very small number of devil firefish.   All lionfish in the Bahamas have been identified as red lionfish.

4. When did lionfish get here?

Golden crab trap fisherman, Richard Nielsen, fishing off Dania, Florida caught one lionfish in October 1985. The next report of lionfish was after hurricane Andrew (1992) when a large aquarium, reportedly on a waterfront porch above a seawall at the edge of Biscayne Bay, Florida, broke and released six red lionfish. These six lionfish were observed alive in Biscayne Bay several days later. In a 1995 report, several lionfish were observed by divers off Palm Beach and Boca Raton, Florida; a hook-and-line fisherman caught one from Lake Worth Pier, Palm Beach County, Florida.

5. How did lionfish get here?

Two possible explanations are releases from ballast waters from ships and releases of aquarium fish. Genetic work shows very little genetic variation which supports the aquarium releases as the source.  Work in 2009 reports 8 "halotypes" which suggest the current population of lionfish originated from 8 females, again supporting a limited release from aquariums rather than a larger release from ballast waters.

6. How big do lionfish grow?

They grow up to 45 cm or 17.7 inches. Recently a 17 inch lionfish weighing 2 and ¼ pounds was caught by hook-and-line in the Turks and Caicos. Maximum size recorded for adult lionfish in their native range varies, but a conservative estimate is about 380 mm or 15” TL.

7. What do lionfish eat?

Identified prey includes: fairy basslet, bridled cardinalfish, white grunt, bicolor damselfish, wrasses, striped parrotfish, dusky blenny, Nassau grouper, and yellow tail snapper. Initial work looking at crustacean prey suggests that lionfish may also eat the juvenile spiny lobster (Panulirus argus), an important commercial fishery species in Florida, The Bahamas, Bermuda, and the Caribbean. Lionfish are also cannibalistic.

8. How much do lionfish eat?

Researchers in the field observed a large adult lionfish consume over 20 small wrasses (1-3 cm or 0.4-1.2") TL) during a 30 minute period. Stomach content confirmed individual lionfish ate both large quantities of prey (max. = 53, mean = 5.7) and large prey relative to their body size. Fish prey ranged in size from 1 - 12 (0.4-4.7") cm TL. One 11.9 cm (4.7") TL lionfish contained a 5.4 cm (2.1") TL white grunt. Lionfish stomachs can expand over 30 times in volume when consuming a large meal.

9. How big a fish can a lionfish eat?

It is not unusual to observe lionfish consuming prey up to 2/3 of their own length. One 3.1 cm (1.2") TL lionfish recruit cornered and consumed a 2 cm (0.8") TL cottonwick grunt.

10. What eats lionfish?

There is one published account of a native Bahamian grouper feeding on lionfish.

In feeding trials, over 5-39 days, no lionfish were consumed by any of the native predators (Caribbean octopus, nurse shark, red hind, Nassau grouper and graysby grouper).  Native predators do not seem to recognize lionfish as potential prey.

11. Do lionfish compete with other species for food?

Competition experiments demonstrated that lionfish consumed significantly more prey than comparably sized coney and that lionfish grew at a faster rate than comparably sized coney grouper held under identical conditions across all treatments.

12. Are there lots of lionfish on our reefs?

The first assessment of lionfish densities off NC reported an average of 8.4 lionfish per acre across 17 locations in 2004.  By 2009 the mean density in NC was 375 per acre with a maximum of 1,125 per acre. Recent assessments from the Bahamas indicate lionfish densities are much higher than the NC estimates (Bahamas mean = 983/acre with a maximum of 1,343 per acre).  Lionfish densities in the Bahamas are much higher than estimates from their native range (5.5-200/acre).

13. Will lionfish numbers continue to grow?

In their invaded Atlantic and Caribbean ranges, it is unclear when lionfish densities will reach carrying capacity. Given that many reef fishes along the east coast of the U.S. and Caribbean are overfished, lionfish might be utilizing vacated niche attributes such as increased availability of forage fishes and reef space.

14. When do lionfish become mature and reproduce?

Lionfish become sexually mature during their first year.  Males are mature at 4" and females at 7". The eggs evolve and grow on stalks and so each egg has somewhat of an umbilical cord. There is a complex courtship and each female releases two egg masses.  The eggs are encased in a gelatinous mucous that is hollow which traps sperm and increases fertilization. Settlement of larvae occurs about 26 days after hatching.

Females spawn year round, every 4 days and produce 25,000 eggs per batch or spawning.  This means each female produces more than 2 MILLION eggs per year!

15. Do lionfish live in groups?

Lionfish are usually solitary as adults and will defend their home range against other types of fish. They congregate in small groups during mating and as juveniles.  Juveniles have been observed in groups of up to 40 individuals.

16. How deep do lionfish live?

Lionfish have been observed in submersibles over 500 feet deep and have been caught with hook and line from similar depths.

17. What temperature do lionfish like?

Lionfish are native to warm waters. Their future distribution in the Atlantic will be limited by water temperature. The minimum temperature they can survive is 10ºC or 50ºF.

18. Are lionfish poisonous?

NO! Lionfish are venomous not poisonous! There are 2 glandular grooves along the dorsal, ventral and anal spines. The glandular tissue extends about ¾ the distance from the base of the spine towards the tip. The glandular grooves contain a colorless glandular tissue, and they are covered by a sheath of tissue. This sheath is pushed down as the spine enters the victim and the glandular tissue is disrupted, releasing the venom. The venom is composed of acetylcholine and a neurotoxin which causes severe pain, swelling and rash in humans.

19. What should you do if you get stuck by a lionfish spine?

The Bahamas National Lionfish Response Project has developed a first aid response.  First stay calm and check for any obvious pieces of spine left in the wound and remove any if found. Then apply water as hot as bearable (100-110ºF) or an instant heat pack to the area for 30 to 90 minutes.  Over the counter pain medication will help relieve the pain. Seek medical help immediately.

20. Is being stuck or stung by a lionfish spine fatal?

Human’s reaction to lionfish venom varies. Some have a mild reaction similar to a bee sting. Others have a more painful reaction with swelling, rash, and extreme pain. Lionfish venom causes cardiovascular and neuromuscular effects ranging from mild swelling to extreme pain and paralysis in arms and legs.

21. Can you eat lionfish?

Yes!  Lionfish are delicious and taste like a cross between a hog snapper and a grouper. The flesh is firm and white.  Once the venomous spines have been removed, you can treat a lionfish like any other good eating fish.  They are excellent fried, blackened, and sautéed.  They also make excellent sushi and ceviche.

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