Extent and speed of lionfish invasion is 'unprecedented'

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Lionfish are invading the eastern coast of the US at a rate never seen before a survey by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has found.

The lionfish originates from the Indo-West Pacific Ocean and was first reported off Florida’s Atlantic coast in the 1980s.By 2000 it had started to spread and is now found along the western Atlantic coast of the US and throughout the Caribbean. While more than 30 non-native species have been sighted off the coast of Florida, this is the first instance of one being able to survive, reproduce and spread.

Dr Pam Schofield one of the lead biologists at the USGS Southeast Ecological Science Centre said: "Nothing like this has been seen before in these waters. We've observed sightings of numerous non-native species, but the extent and speed with which lionfish have spread has been unprecedented; lionfish pretty much blanketed the Caribbean in three short years."

Dr Schofield has spent a number of years compiling sightings of lionfish from biologists, museum curators and dive masters. The records have now been compiled and mapped in the USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species database.

Concern is now being raised as lionfish are extremely predatory and are preying on and competing with a wide range of native species. Schofield’s team have now moved on to working on an analysis of the lionfish diet to understand their potential impact on reef ecosystems.

Although it is not clear how the lionfish first arrived in the Atlantic, Schofield believes the invasion serves as a warning of the dangers posed by introductions of non-native fishes into an ecosystem.

"This invasion may constitute a harbinger of the emerging threat of non-native marine fishes to coastal systems," Schofield said.

It may be extremely difficult to eradicate the lionfish in these areas but efforts have already been started by a number of countries in the Caribbean to control the population. PFK also reported the first ever derbies to control the fish in the Florida Keys.

For more information on the Lionfish invasion see the USGS website.