Hi, Reddit! I’m Michelle Johnston, research ecologist with NOAA’s Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary; I’m Steve Gittings, science coordinator with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries; and I’m James Morris, an ecologist with the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science. We’re here to answer your questions on invasive lionfish.
In recent years, Indo-Pacific lionfish have been found in coral reefs throughout the southeast Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean. While scientists are unsure exactly how they got there, they believe that people have been dumping unwanted lionfish from home aquariums into the Atlantic Ocean for more than two decades.
Because of their voracious appetites, rapid reproduction rate, and lack of natural predators, these invasive lionfish post a serious threat to coral reefs, with potential long-term consequences for native fish communities, habitats, and entire ecosystem. So far, four national marine sanctuaries have been invaded by lionfish -- Gray’s Reef, Florida Keys, Flower Garden Banks, and Monitor.
At NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, we’re working to understand this invasive species so we can better protect habitats both within and beyond national marine sanctuaries. We’re here to discuss what we know about lionfish and what NOAA is doing to address this threat.
We’re here from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. ET today to answer your questions about invasive lionfish. Ask us anything!
Thanks for joining us today and sharing your questions on the lionfish invasion! We're out of time, but here are a few helpful resources if you are looking for more information on lionfish:
Here in Trinidad and Tobago, my dive instructor catches lionfish with a spear gun, and has been trying to convince people to eat them for years, saying they're delicious. Do people eat the lionfish elsewhere, or is he just crazy? Because when we dive elsewhere, we always see lionfish, but there are never any in the areas he dives often.
Steve Gittings: Lionfish are extremely tasty fish! They are eaten in many places where they are available. Their flaky, firm, white meat is quite good at taking up whatever flavors are added to a recipe. Demand is actually quite high. Unfortunately, the supply is not keeping with demand. Here's a study about this .
Is there a more efficient way of hunting Lionfish besides just using a spear gun?
Also what are you guys doing to show local predators that they're safe to eat if they eat them head on?
In shallow water pole spears have proven to be the best way to catch lionfish. They allow the diver to get the fish, even if they are tucked under overhangs or in crevices. We're also working on designing effective traps for lionfish that will minimize bycatch. You can learn more here: Marine Sanctuary Scientist Steve Gittings Fights Invasive Lionfish | Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.
We are not teaching predators how to eat lionfish. If there is a better way to eat them (headfirst, or smaller sized lionfish), they will figure it out.
Some states have a bounty or catch reward program for other species of fish (e.g. Pikeminnow). Have you considered recommending a similar program to Gulf Coast states?
Steve Gittings: Bounties for a fish as abundant as lionfish could get expensive very fast! They are more appropriate for targets that are rare.
I've heard stories about places that introduce predators to deal with smaller invasive species. But the predator species eventually becomes the new invasive one. Whether this is true or just a story idk. In order to avoid this situation, could we cultivate a small industry for lionfish as food? I can't imagine an efficient way of hunting them if they're around reefs, but just an idea. Might be better than taking a risk with introducing a preditor
Steve Gittings: Predator introduction is risky, and unlikely to be socially or ecologically acceptable in the case of lionfish. It's just too difficult to predict or control the unintended consequences. We are seeing lionfish enter the seafood market, slowly but steadily. Currently, most find their way into stores and restaurants through shallow water spearfishing and from captures in lobster traps in that fishery. We are developing lionfish-specific traps to capture more from deep water environments, where they can be extremely abundant.
Hey Everyone, OCNG PhD Student working in the Gulf of Mexico here! Thank you so much for doing this, So I have 2 real questions and a fun one.
How did the recent die off, due to iirc salinity changes, affect the invasive species and native species relative to eachother?
Why doesn't NOAA have its bigger ships (like the R/V Brown) going into the Gulf and Caribbean more often? There is plenty of great research that could be going on in these large bodies due to a lack of research coverage, especially in the deeps. This is in addition to the fact I couldn't get berth for its Summer 17 voyage and would love to not have to wait another 5-10 years to get another chance!
Whats the Best/Favorite story you have of talking to the public about either your work or science in general?
Thanks for your time and efforts!
Michelle Johnston: Thanks for the great questions. The mass mortality event at East Flower Garden Bank in July of 2016 was very localized to one area of the reef cap. We still do not know definitively what caused the event. In the localized area, corals, sponges, and other invertebrates such as sea urchins, were all affected by the event. While conducting fish surveys in the mortality area, fish density was low, causing us to believe that fish swam away from the affected area to other parts of the reef. Things that were not mobile, or moved slowly, such as the urchins, coral, and sponges, were not as lucky. Because the mortality zone was very small, we do not think it affected invasive species, such as lionfish, in the area. As to your question about NOAA ships in the Gulf, there was been great work done in past off NOAA ships. In fact, there is ship time for research in the Gulf off the R/V Nancy Foster scheduled for later on this summer. I love talking to kids about lionfish. If there is a silver lining about the invasion, it's that people are interested in the issue, and it is a stepping stone to teaching about coral reef conservation. I have done lionfish dissections with elementary school kids, and they are always very excited and animated about the process.
I've heard that lionfish are very aggressive and territorial. Is this true? If so, is there a specific species they are hurting the most and displacing or is it sortof a diverse group?
Also, what do they eat as a main food source?
James Morris: Lionfish are typically not aggressive over territory. They can be seen in large groups. Some aggression has been observed among males but the cause is not clear. Lionfish prey on mostly small fish and crustaceans (crab and shrimp).
Thanks for doing this AMA. This has been a topic that has been on my mind for some time.
What is the state of research on Lionfish venom? Do younger lionfish have more or less potent venom than adults, or is it just a question of volume?
James Morris: Great question! We aren't sure about the differences in potentcy between juvenile and adult lionfish. We have identified venom glands in juveniles so we are confident that juvenile lionfish are in fact venomous.
Hi everyone! Thanks for the AMA! :)
I'm a soon to be biology university graduate who hopes to do conservation work as a career. I am currently taking multiple courses on both species level and ecosystem level conservation but these courses have also become a bit depressing when you realize how greed and financial gain is frequently put above protecting the planet. Projects like yours are exciting but I can't help but wonder how many people don't see the intrinsic value of culling lionfish populations for ecosystem health.
What do you think is the most effective argument to use for why we need to protect the earth and its ecosystems when speaking to financially-focused individuals?
James Morris: The economics of conservation is certainly an area of much concern and research. What about resources on our planet that are priceless? Protection of these special places like Sanctuaries is critical to the marine ecosystem and to our planet. For example, conserving biodiversity is important for tourism in the Sanctuaries. The hard work is figuring out how to adequately manage our planet's most valuable resources while providing for sustainable use! Interestingly, harvesting invasive species allows for complete exploitation while still helping the planet (as long as harvesting doesn't have other impacts!). That said, the benefit is most of the time always far less than the impact when it comes to invasives.
Hi, thanks for taking the time to do this! Can you share some initial ideas floating around (no pun intended) about how to get rid of lionfish?
Steve Gittings: Wow! There are all sorts. Besides spearing by divers, there are people working on robots that will spear lionfish or suck them up through tubes. There are people developing ways to electrocute them. Some are hoping that autonomous vehicles can be deployed to search and destroy them using image recognition technologies. A number of people (including myself) are working on different types of lionfish-specific traps—some mechanical, others using recognition technology that opens the trap only when lionfish are nearby.
Hi guys, will this be covered in detail or be mentioned in the NOAA's podcast?
James Morris:We actually talked about the spread of invasive lionfish in a two-part podcast on the National Ocean Service website.
Hi, thanks for the AMA! So, what is the NOAA doing to address this threat?
Steve Gittings: I'll let James Morris tell you more about the awesome work he's been doing on lionfish for years, ranging from basic biology to their health benefits and beyond. Michelle and I work in the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. With James' help, we put together a Lionfish Response Plan that lays out a lot of the work going on in marine sanctuaries. It includes monitoring of lionfish populations and their effects on native species; controlling lionfish through derbies and other removal efforts; research on biology, ecology and control techniques; and education and outreach actions that we hope will teach others what they can do to help deal with the problem.
Michelle Johnston: At Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, we are conducting targeted removals in priority areas, annual fish surveys and long-term monitoring programs, genetics studies, and also dissecting all the fish we remove to look at reproductive status and stomach contents to assess impacts to native reef fish within the marine sanctuary. Information on the research efforts at FGBNMS is available online.
It has been shown that Grouper will prey upon Lionfish. Have you identified any other potential predators of Lionfish?
Steve Gittings: There have been a few observations of grouper eating lionfish, but we don't believe that grouper have fully "learned" that lionfish can be a good meal. We've also seen green morays, sharks, and a few other large fish try lionfish. But these are rare observations, so don't get the idea that nature has adapted to lionfish yet. And we have to keep the population scale in mind: what's happening locally may not be having a population-scale impact!
I live in Hawaii, and I'm not entirely sure if our lionfish problem is a problem or not. There's conflicting opinions from what I understand, with it being called the Hawaiian turkeyfish or invasive. When I spear I try to kill things like roi, the peacock grouper, because it's basically reef maintenance. I wanted to know whether or not I should add them to that list, please? =]
Steve Gittings: No, don't remove them! Lionfish are invasive in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean. Some species are native in Hawaii and should not be removed.
I once found a lionfish 130 feet down in the great blue hole in Belize...
Completely serious question - do you have a good lionfish recipe? I've seen a lot of conservation groups trying to get people eating lionfish for this reason. How effective do you think these measures are? Are they a "get people aware" kind of thing or is their impact more directly tangible?
Steve Gittings: There is at least one lionfish cookbook out there, with a lot of great recipes. You can get it through the Reef Environmental Education Foundation at reef.org. I don't know if it's in the cookbook or not, but my favorite is blackened lionfish over Caesar salad.
I have seen videos of Caribbean predators like snapper, grouper, even morays eating injured lionfish provided by divers. I have also heard of lionfish appearing in the stomachs of snapper and grouper offshore. This suggests there is some capability for natural predators to "come around" to begin eating lionfish regularly. This leads me to two questions: 1) Is anyone actively trying to assess whether native predators can control lionfish? 2) What is your opinion of divers providing dead lionfish to reef predators? Does this do more harm or good, and is it possible to condition reef predators to switch to lionfish?
Steve Gittings: We're all watching for more evidence that native species have started eating lionfish. We're hopeful that some will start eating them at all stages of life, effectively creating a natural control. But that evidence is really not apparent yet.
Some places have tried feeding lionfish to large predators. In the Cayman Islands, for example, Nassau grouper actively lead divers to lionfish, presumably hoping they'll spear them and feed them. It has created some problems—aggressive predators trying to steal the lionfish, for example. Now divemasters do the culling because they know how to deal with sharks and other "competitors."
It's also clear that lionfish don't always go down easy. I've seen spines sticking through the cheeks and lips of groupers, and watched a grouper try for about five minutes to swallow a lionfish. The grouper didn't look like he was enjoying it. So most places now discourage the the feeding of speared lionfish to native predators because of the risk it poses to divers and the effects on local predators.
Is there any talks about bringing in predators that eat lion fish, but hopefully without impacting the environment somehow?
James Morris: Introducing non-native species is forbidden by law. There are not any efforts underway to do this that we are aware of.
Why aren't we using waterproof drones to fetch lionfish so we can sell and eat them? Those same drones can have computers to keep numbers balanced.
I just don't get it. They're so horrible on the environment, yet there's not enough man-power alone to solve the problem. Technology needs to be used.
James Morris: We agree! Technology may be the answer! There is some great work underway testing the use of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), smart traps that capture only lionfish, and robots designed to hunt and kill lionfish. Stay tuned for more on this!
What realistic proposals have been floated to control lionfish populations?
Is it true that large Groupers are capable of eating lionfish, and if so would stronger protections for Groupers from fishing help control the problem?
Steve Gittings: Good point about stronger protections for grouper possibly being good for lionfish control. That, in combination with our own control efforts, is probably the best combination of approaches we can use. You can learn about our response plan within the National Marine Sanctuary System here. In sanctuaries, we're monitoring populations and their effects of native species; helping to control them through derbies and other removal efforts; researching biology, ecology, and control techniques (including traps); and putting together education and outreach efforts to help spread the word.
Are any of you familiar with environmental DNA (eDNA)? It involves collecting environmental samples, extracting DNA, and running it through PCR and gel electrophoresis to isolate and resequence specific genes. For example, using it to amplify the 16s gene of lionfish by taking water samples in areas of concern.
Right now eDNA is being used to track carp as they go up the Mississippi river toward the great lakes. Research has also came out on using it for biodiversity assessments in both aquatic and terrestrial systems. It can reduce a lot of human labor and eliminate room for error, and can provide reproduceable evidence for the presence or absence of a target organism.
I was part of a research group where we proved that eDNA can be used in a marine environment to detect recent lionfish. I think there is a lot of room for applying this technique in many different ways.
Steve Gittings: Yes, we're testing it as a way to document levels of biodiversity in national marine sanctuaries in a project called the Marine Biodiversity Observing Network, or MBON. Lots of promise, but still fairly experimental, from what I know. We're hoping it can eventually be used to monitor changes in biodiversity. I wish we could have had it worked out before the lionfish invasion so we could have better tracked the impacts.
As a keen scuba diver who has also undertaken a volunteer reef monitoring expedition in Mexico I have an awareness of this issue, but I think most people do not. Do you feel that it's something that requires more public awareness and are they any plans (other than AMA's of course :) ) to try and make this happen?
James Morris: Public awareness is always key to any conservation issue. The lionfish issue is a hot issue that is frequently in the news, in documentaries, lots of websites, and promoted in the seafood industry. Transitioning awareness to impact is our challenge. We are hopeful that as more people become aware, innovation and science will increase around the lionfish issue. One thing is for sure, the lionfish problem isn't going away! Check out our live lionfish news feed on the lionfish web portal!
How about the eggs? Can somehow Lionfish eggs be easily identified, caught and/or destroyed?
James Morris: Not easily! Lionfish release a hollow balloon of eggs similar to other scorpionfishes in the Atlantic. It would be very hard to tell lionfish eggs apart from some of the other scorpionfishes. That said, we wonder if the lack of egg predation could partly explain the success of lionfish in the Atlantic. Lionfish eggs themselves are believed to contain a toxin to defend them from egg predators. This is an interesting area for future research. For a review of lionfish eggs and reproduction and much more, check out the lionfish manual.
Could lionfish venom have any conceivable scientific use and is there research going on along these lines?
Bear in mind I am not in any way a scientist so this might be a terribly dumb question!
James Morris: Lionfish venom does have medicinal properties and can be effective at reducing tumors. There has been a lot of work on scorpionfish venom in India although it does not appear that this work has led to the commercialization of lionfish venom. Unfortunately, venoms that do become commercial are typically produced synthetically as the supply from the wild can be more expensive and cause conservation issues. So, we don't expect that demand for lionfish venom would provide long term fishing pressure.
I recently went to Little Cayman Island on a diving trip and saw many Lionfish on my dives. I also had Lionfish to eat at several restaurants on the Island...and it was very tasty! What can we do to start pressuring grocery store and restaurant chains to sell Lionfish? Are there any chains that are actively selling Lionfish now?
James Morris: Ask your local seafood supplier if they can get lionfish! Consumers have to ask and be willing to pay in order to increase demand.
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