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Roar of the Lionfish

When non-native lionfish appeared in Florida waters in 1985, few Texans took note. By 2009, the invaders had spread up the U.S. East Coast, throughout the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico — inevitably, in 2011, reaching Texas. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, other state agencies, universities and industry and conservation groups convened a symposium to launch their coordinated defense, a lionfish action plan.

These invaders — lovely creatures with bold stripes, fearsome spikes and elongated, fan-like fins — threaten native residents of Texas coastal waters and represent a formidable foe. Lionfish have no known predators here and reach densities up to 10 times greater than in their native Indo-Pacific. Adults spawn year-round, with females producing 2 million to 4 million eggs per year. These fish thrive everywhere from shallow water down to 1,000 feet deep, on and around every kind of structure, and in both hyper- and low-saline water, including miles up freshwater streams.

Even worse, the fish are gluttons, decimating native fish populations.

No one can turn back time to prevent the invasion, but management can minimize its damage. Removal by divers and fishermen effectively controls lionfish numbers locally, and native fish communities recover in response. Texas allows unlimited removal of lionfish by spear, net or hook-and-line in state waters (saltwater license required). NOAA scientists have removed some 3,000 lionfish at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary since 2011, and three by-invitation “lionfish derbies” removed hundreds more. The next one is scheduled for August.

“Based on stomach content analysis of lionfish, the first two derbies potentially saved 2 million reef fish from being eaten,” says sanctuary research coordinator Emma Hickerson. “While that is the tip of the iceberg, it does have a positive effect.”

Commercial fishermen often catch lionfish in traps for lobster and other targets, and intentional commercial harvest could take a big bite out of the population. Lionfish have high omega-3 fatty acids, and their firm, white meat can be prepared many ways. Some groceries in Florida sell lionfish, and a growing number of restaurants there and in the Caribbean serve it.

In Texas, availability remains hampered by the lack of efficient capture methods and regulatory concerns. Commercial fisheries fall under federal Magnuson-Stevens Act regulations, which require promotion of commercial fishery stocks. No one wants to actively promote the lionfish population, and efforts to write regulations specific to the invasive species have proved daunting. Currently, The Downtowner in New Braunfels may be the only Texas restaurant serving the tasty fish.

While work on a Texas management plan continues, the effort already has reaped benefits by bringing together those involved in lionfish control.

“That’s one of the greatest things,” says TPWD Matagorda Bay ecosystem leader Leslie Hartman. “We developed partnerships where none existed so we could help each other.”

In Florida and the Caribbean, up to 1,000 lionfish occupy a single acre of ocean. It will take working together to keep the invasion in Texas from going that far.

Report lionfish sightings at nas.er.usgs.gov/SightingReport.aspx.

Apply for lionfish derbies at texaslionfish.org/expeditions.

lionfish

More in our reef series: Deep in the Gulf | Texas Treasure Threatened | Building More Reefs | Life at an Artificial Reef | Swimming with Sharks


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