Environmental and Biotic Correlates to Lionfish Invasion Success in Bahamian Coral Reefs

Lionfish (Pterois volitans) from the Indo-Pacific have recently invaded the Caribbean and southeastern coast of North America. This study looked at lionfish abundances and the physical and environmental characteristics of the invasion process of reefs on the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas. Lionfish abundance was significantly higher at sheltered sites compared to wave-exposed environments. This finding suggests that high-energy environments can provide native fish populations with natural refuges to lionfish invasions. It was further found that the abundance of medium prey fish and large native predators (large native groupers) did not negatively affect abundance of lionfish, however there was a relatively low biomass of large grouper on the island. The authors recommend that managers continue to protect and restore lionfish predators in the Caribbean.

Author: Anton, A., M.S. Simpson, and I. Vu
Year: 2014
View Full Article

PLoS ONE 9(9): e106229. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0106229

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New and improved Network Forum

The Reef Resilience Network has launched a new and improved online discussion forum!

Now part of the Reef Resilience website, this interactive online community is a place where coral reef managers and practitioners from around the world can connect and share with others to better manage marine resources.

If you work to protect, manage, or promote coral reefs please join the conversation:

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Hawaii – Fisheries Management

Monitoring Coral Reef Communities in Hawai‘i’s First Herbivore Protection Area

North Kāʻanapali, West Maui, Hawai‘i

The Challenge
In the summer of 2009, the state of Hawai‘i established Hawai‘i’s first MPA designed entirely to promote resilience, the Kahekili Herbivore Fishery Management Area (KHFMA), in which take of all herbivores (parrotfish, surgeonfish, chub and urchins) and fish feeding is prohibited, but other forms of fishing are permitted. The establishment of the KHFMA provides a test case for the prohibition of fishing of herbivores on Hawai‘i’s reefs. Compelling evidence of its effectiveness could lead to wider adoption of this form of management and/or additional fishing regulations. As an example, in 2014, the state of Hawai‘i introduced a bag limit of two parrotfish per fisher per day and no take for terminal phase of the two largest parrotfish species for reefs in Maui, in part, due to evidence that came from the KHFMA monitoring project. In Hawai‘i, as in other parts of the world, fishery regulations and marine protected areas are contentious. Therefore, both supporters and potential critics of these management approaches are carefully observing the outcomes of the herbivore management.

Boundaries of the KHFMA along the Kāʻanapali Coast, West Maui. © Hawai‘i DLNR

Boundaries of the KHFMA along the
Kāʻanapali Coast, West Maui. © Hawai‘i DLNR

Actions Taken
Early in the process of establishing the KHFMA, Hawai‘i Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) and partners at the University of Hawai‘i established a long-term monitoring program within the proposed MPA boundaries to gather data to provide a pre-closure baseline for the KHFMA. The first surveys occurred in January 2008, 18 months prior to the establishment of the reserve. The monitoring program consists of intensive biannual surveys conducted by DAR and NOAA’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Division.

The survey design involved subdividing the habitat within the reserve into 6 habitat categories based on physical structure and depth (shallow aggregate reef, deep aggregate reef, shallow spur-and-groove, deep spur-and-groove, pavement, and mixed mid-depth), that also corresponded with location along the shoreline and with proximity to shore. Within each habitat class, pairs of divers surveyed 25m-long transects haphazardly located, with one diver surveying fishes and the other conducing a photo-transect survey and also recording numbers of sea urchins on their return swim. Typically, dive teams completed ~90-100 surveys in each 4-day monitoring round, images are subsequently analyzed, and all fish, urchin, and benthic data is synthesized within habitat classes and at the scale of the KHFMA, with each habitat weighted by its relative size.

How Successful Has it Been?
In September 2014, 5 years after establishment of the KHFMA, results to date indicate strong evidence of herbivore recovery. There has been more than doubling of parrotfish biomass, particularly increases in numbers of large individuals, and there has been an increase in parrotfish diversity, particularly in shallow habitats that likely were most heavily fished prior to closure. Surgeonfish biomass has also increased significantly, but to a lesser degree. Over the same time period, cover of crustose coralline algae (CCA), considered indicative of high grazing pressure and which is suitable substrate for coral settlement and growth, has increased from 2% cover pre-closure to >10% cover after 5 years of protection. Coral cover has also begun to increase within the KHFMA over approximately the last 18 months, but the increase thus far is relatively small. See the related Case Study on the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area for details on actions taken and lessons learned from managing the area for reef resilience.

Therefore, preliminary evidence suggests that herbivore protection is working; grazing pressure has increased and as a result, the competitive balance has shifted from algal to coral dominance following a long period of decline on local reefs.

The ability to produce high quality data showing recovery has been very important in maintaining public and broader support for the KHFMA. Additionally, the ability to separate out patterns of recovery in different areas of the reserve has been very helpful in understanding factors such as the likely degree of compliance. For example, in the first two years of protection, although there was clear recovery in deeper habitats, there was initially little change in the shallow fringing reef areas close to parking facilities, and therefore, most vulnerable to poaching. Certainly some poaching occurred in the first years after closure. However, compliance appears to be improving, based on data indicating strong recovery in those areas and reports from a motivated and engaged community.

Lessons Learned and Recommendations
Lessons learned and key recommendations include:

Beneficial herbivorous fishes now fully protected within the KHFMA © Hawai‘i DLNR

Beneficial herbivorous fishes now fully protected within the KHFMA. © Hawai‘i DLNR

A strong partnership involving an active local management agency (DAR) with strong links in the community has been fundamental to ensuring that the positive monitoring results have been widely disseminated.

As is common in Hawai‘i, the reefs in the KHFMA are highly variable, encompassing a wide range of habitat types and habitat quality. Therefore, we designed a survey strategy to maximize the number and spatial spread of transects within the KHFMA to increase confidence that the results are representative of the entirety of reef habitats within the reserve. There are trade offs in all design decisions, but key choices were made to:

  • haphazardly locate transects rather than utilize permanent transects. Data from permanent transects would have lower variability between survey rounds, but with significant overhead to install and maintain them, and even to locate them in the course of survey dives; and
  • develop a habitat map of the KHFMA reef, with all reef areas stratified into the habitat classes described above

The habitat map simplifies the program operationally because it allows divers to conduct as many transects as possible within each dive, then use the transect locations to classify each transect into one of the pre-defined habitat categories. We could then generate summary data per survey round separately for each habitat class and for the KHFMA as a whole. That allowed us to discern the different trajectories of recovery in the different habitat zones due to different species compositions, history of fishing, and degree of local compliance.

Another key lesson is that sampling multiple times a year is important because of strong seasonal differences in macroalgal cover. We sampled in spring and late summer each year. More regular sampling would be desirable, but would be operationally challenging because each of our sampling events involves bringing together teams from different islands (Oahu and Maui) and agencies which have other priorities and programs.

It is important to measure change over time within the reserve, but it is also necessary to compare those trends with patterns occurring on comparable reefs outside the reserve. The state of Hawai‘i has long-term monitoring programs at 8 reef areas in Maui. Although the survey design for that long-term monitoring was not exactly the same, the methods used are compatible. We used data from the KHFMA to measure change over time within the reserve and used the existing long-term monitoring data for ‘outside-MPA’ comparisons. While there are some drawbacks to that (e.g., inside and outside reserve data are gathered using different methods and survey designs), the benefit is that we did not have to establish specific KHFMA controls for this project, and therefore were able to focus all our survey effort on the KHFMA rather than dividing it between two (KHFMA and one control) or three or more areas (KHFMA and two or more controls).

As with nearly any new monitoring program, there are enormous potential benefits from being able to compare and share data with other local programs. Therefore, we strongly advise anyone establishing a new program to adopt methods and ideally designs that are widely utilized in the region. More generally, increased data sharing across programs is critical given the difficulty and cost of gathering coral reef survey data. In Kahekili, the availability of abundant high-quality local data has contributed to the scientific focus on the KHFMA – researchers wishing to study the region make use of the rich dataset available to them.

Finally, although preliminary evidence demonstrates the effectiveness of the KHFMA, there is still a long way to go before the full extent of reef recovery may occur. Herbivore biomass is increasing 5 years post closure, yet studies elsewhere have shown that reef fishes can take 10 or 20 years post closure to reach new maxima (surgeonfish being particularly slow to fully recover, perhaps because of their long life spans). Further, although increased herbivory does appear to have generated conditions more suitable for coral recruitment and growth, the relatively slow growth of corals means that it will be a long time (e.g., 10-15 years or more) before ultimate impacts of herbivore protection on coral assemblages are fully evident. Survey programs aiming to measure the effectiveness of herbivore management should therefore (i) expect that full recovery will be a process of decades not years; and (ii) ideally incorporate process studies (e.g., coral recruitment growth and mortality) to have the greatest scope for early detection of positive impacts. Although we have attempted to initiate such studies at KHFMA, we have not yet been successful in raising funds for that work.

Funding Summary
Hawai‘i Coral Reef Initiative Research Program
NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program

Lead Organization
Hawai‘i Division of Aquatic Resources, Department of Land and Natural Resources
NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystems Division, Honolulu

University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, Department of Botany

Responses of Herbivorous Fishes and Benthos to 6 Years of Protection at the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area, Maui (pdf)

Information on establishment of the Kahekili Herbivore Fishery Management Area

Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area Rules

Kahekili Herbivore Fishery Management Area Facebook

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Invasive Lionfish in the Marketplace: Challenges and Opportunities

Since the 1980s, invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish have spread throughout the western Atlantic and Caribbean, threatening biodiversity and native reef fish, which are the livelihood of local cultures and economies. During the 66th annual meeting of the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute in Corpus Christi, Texas, representatives from government agencies, academia, NGOs, law, restaurants, seafood distributors, media, and fishers participated in a workshop to identify the challenges of harvesting and distributing invasive lionfish as a means of control. This paper presents a summary of the research needs and priorities identified during the workshop for the following five sessions:

  1. Invasive lionfish and ciguatera
    In 2011, lionfish from the U.S. Virgin Islands were tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the presence of ciguatoxins (CTXs), responsible for ciguatera fish poisoning (CFP) in humans. Results show that of 153 invasive lionfish tested, 40% had detectable levels of CTXs and 12% were above the FDA guidance. Similar studies have been conducted in other areas of the Caribbean like Saint Barthelemy, French West Indies (FWI). Here 49% of the samples tested positive and 40% were above the recommended exposure threshold for Pacific CTXs. According to researchers, no incidences of ciguatera have been reported from lionfish consumption in the USVI or FWI up until January, 2014. However, there are many uncertainties in the current knowledge of CFP epidemiology, ecology and toxicology. For instance, many cases of CFP are not reported, making it difficult to identify locations of concern and to accurately calculate frequency rates. Also, recent studies suggest that false positives for CTXs may be due to similarities in composition between scorpionfish venom toxins and CTXs. Finally, little laboratory evidence validates the exposure thresholds recommended by the FDA.
  2. Legal aspects of ciguatera
    Promoting lionfish consumption may pose legal challenges to distributors, restaurant owners, and resource managers due to CFP. In 1990 two CFP test cases were won before the Superior Court of Puerto Rico, arguing that ciguatera occurrence is spatially and temporally variable and over 400 fish species have the potential to become ciguatoxic. Therefore fishers, wholesalers, distributors, restaurant owners, and all persons involved in the fishing industry cannot be held responsible if their products contain CTXs. Since then a generalized caution statement referring to all marine reef fish is displayed within establishments that serve fish and on fish products.
  3. Harvesting invasive lionfish
    Many challenges exist with lionfish harvesting techniques, which affect the development of a sustainable market. Currently lionfish are being caught as bycatch on hook-and-line and in lobster traps. However, the most effective method for removing large quantities of lionfish is targeted removals by SCUBA divers and snorkelers using spears and nets. Targeted removals are a highly effective harvesting technique on a local scale. For long term control, removal efforts must be sustained by partnerships and collaborations between derby hosts, collectors, distributors, and restaurants. Other end-uses for invasive lionfish include ornamental (e.g. jewelry) and the aquarium trade.
  4. Case studies of invasive lionfish in the marketplace

    Restaurants and local business are currently promoting collaborations and networking to supply and serve lionfish in restaurants nationwide. However, they encounter supply chain weaknesses and elevated lionfish prices. Also, there are very few mid-range restaurants serving lionfish and sources, processing facilities, and practices tend to be quite expensive.

  5. Invasive lionfish supply and distribution

    Commercial suppliers, like Traditional Fisheries are partnering with local fishing cooperatives in an effort to provide income to fishers and contribute to invasive lionfish control. Yet, logistical and financial challenges such as packaging regulations and requirements for shipping and distribution of fish prohibit further expansion. The lack of capital and lack of market recognition are also affecting the efforts to supply and distribute lionfish. Other distributors such as Rainforest Seafood in the Caribbean also experiences challenges distributing lionfish. Some of their biggest challenges are the low demand caused by consumer’s health concerns and the high costs associated to lionfish distribution.

Based on the information presented and discussed during the workshop, the following consensus statements were developed and agreed upon by participants:

  • An invasive lionfish food fish market is feasible and should be promoted.
  • Alternative invasive lionfish end-uses, such as the ornamental and aquarium trade, are also viable markets.
  • Regarding consumption and the risk for CFP, invasive lionfish should not be treated differently than other fish species.
  • A general caution statement should be displayed within all establishments that serve fish and on fish products.
  • Local control is effective at minimizing invasive lionfish impacts at local scales and should be encouraged where possible.
  • Managers are encouraged to consider regulatory amendments in MPAs and other no-take areas to allow the removal of invasive lionfish.


Author: Bogdanoff, A.K., J.L. Akins, J.A. Morris Jr., and 2013 GCFI Lionfish Workgroup
Year: 2014
View Full Article

Proceedings of the 66th Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute November 4-8, 2013. Corpus Christi, Texas.

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Bonaire – Invasive Species

Pro-active Approach to Combat the Invasion of the Indo-Pacific Lionfish by the Bonaire National Marine Park

The Challenge
The invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish (Pterois volitans and Pterois miles) was first reported in Bonaire’s waters in 2009 and has since become firmly established. Nowadays, it is common for divers on Bonaire’s reefs to encounter this invasive species. This issue is far from being an isolated problem; in less than a decade, lionfish have become established along the Southeast U.S and the Caribbean and are now expanding into the Gulf of Mexico and South America. Lionfish are not only established, they are thriving, and have surpassed some native species in certain locations. The lionfish invasion, which many believe is to blame on aquarium enthusiasts releasing unwanted lionfish, is reported as one of the most rapid invasions in history. Several factors have contributed to the proliferation of lionfish: the lack of natural predators in their invasive range, their generalist diet, their ability to adapt to many habitats and their prolific rate of reproduction.

hunting lionfish at night_smaller

Hunting lionfish at night. © Andre de Molenaar

By competing with native species for food or space, invasive species can cause important changes to the physical environment, as well as lead to the irreversible extinction of native species. Invasive species are especially an issue for island environments where native species have evolved in isolation and are more vulnerable to introduced predators. Lionfish are a major threat to reef ecosystems because they decrease the survival of a wide range of native reef animals via both predation and competition.  They can also trigger an increase in algal growth by preying on ecologically important herbivore species that keep seaweeds and macroalgae from overgrowing corals. This is of great concern for Bonaire’s reefs, which are some of the most diverse and healthiest in the Caribbean region. The presence of lionfish is also an important concern for Bonaire’s economy, as it has the potential to drastically reduce local fisheries as well as affect revenue from the tourism industry. Additionally, lionfish pose a risk to the health and safety of visitors, locals, and park staff, due to their venomous spines that can inflict a painful sting and result in serious health complications.

Catching LF GOPR0048_crop

Lionfish are caught by spearfishing. © Bas Tol

Actions Taken
Faced with the arrival and rapid population growth of the lionfish, the Stichting Nationale Parken Bonaire (STINAPA Bonaire), a nongovernmental organization that manages the Bonaire National Marine Park, quickly sprang into action to curb the invasion and protect native fish communities within the Bonaire National Marine Park. Because of the nature of the lionfish invasion, notably the mobility of the species and the high level of human resources required, the complete eradication of the species is a goal that cannot realistically be attained at present. The aim is therefore to actively control population numbers of the invasive species through periodic and repeated removal efforts, reducing the population of lionfish to a level where the impact on native reef fish communities is minimized and the spread of lionfish to previously unoccupied areas is diminished. The removal program is based on volunteers using spear guns, as the experience in the Bonaire National Marine Park has been that spear guns are the best technique to collect lionfish. While spearfishing is illegal in Bonaire, participating volunteers are provided with special permits allowing the spearing of lionfish using Eradicate Lion Fish (ELFs) by local authorities.

LF collection_0156_Smaller

Volunteer collecting lionfish. © Jan Veenendaal

So far, around 300 local volunteers have been trained and licensed by STINAPA Bonaire to hunt and kill lionfish. Marine Park rangers conduct lionfish workshops for volunteers or visitors who are interested in helping to remove the fish, focusing upon how to safely catch and remove them. A core group of about 30 hunters remove hundreds of fish every week. STINAPA’s Junior Rangers are also involved in the program. All Junior Rangers have received lionfish education while those over the age of 18 have received training on lionfish removal. These Junior Rangers are not only helping with the removal of lionfish but are also helping instill amongst the youth of Bonaire an understanding of the threat that lionfish pose and the need for a pro-active approach.

Bonaire Lionfish in Truck_cropped

Results of volunteer lionfish collecting. © Larry Holling

STINAPA Bonaire has also established a number of important partnerships. They collaborate with Bonaire’s Council on International Educational Exchange Research Station (CIEE ) to ensure that lionfish data are processed and analyzed. So far, more than 5,000 lionfish have been handed off to CIEE, with research focusing on vital statistics such as the size and weight of lionfish, sexual maturity, feeding preferences, and habitat and depth preferences. STINAPA also partners with the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA) to hold workshops to educate dive operators as well as the general public on why and how to control lionfish. STINAPA and DCNA have jointly developed an innovative tool for lionfish control: a smart phone app whereby Bonaire’s lionfish hunters can add the location and details of lionfish caught, escaped, or seen during a dive, and this data can be viewed on a live map. The goal is to create a centralized location for all collected data in order to show the complete picture to anyone interested.

How Successful Has it Been?
A study took place in 2011 to determine the effectiveness of lionfish removal efforts within the Bonaire National Marine Park. Differences in the density and biomass of lionfish were compared between areas in which lionfish were directly targeted during removal efforts and areas where they were not. Results showed that the local density and biomass of the invasive lionfish in fished locations on Bonaire is 2.76 times lower than in unfished areas. This study therefore shows that continued removal efforts are effective at reducing the local density and biomass of invasive lionfish. It also shows that using volunteer divers is an effective means in controlling lionfish populations, as large quantities of lionfish are being removed. However, these lionfish removal efforts can only target areas that can easily be accessed by divers, and a number of hard to access sites are not being controlled. In 2013, Bonaire’s deep reef was explored as part of the Bonaire Deep Reef Expedition; lionfish were observed as deep as 165 meters. Therefore, unless lionfish in these hard to access areas can be targeted, the effects of removal efforts will continue to be offset.

STINAPA Bonaire’s partnerships for this project have been a huge success. The thousands of lionfish that have been analyzed by the CIEE research station now represent one of the largest, in-depth and most long-term lionfish datasets in the Caribbean. Thanks to the research carried out on lionfish, managers of the Bonaire National Marine Park can better forecast the impact that lionfish will have on native fish populations and therefore develop more effective management plans. The research has also been a key asset in educating both Bonaire’s local population and visitors about the invasion. Research findings are shared via articles in newsletters and on social media, as well as through public lectures. They are also shared with Bonaire’s youth through lectures and hands-on workshops in local schools.

Lessons Learned and Recommendations
Lessons learned and key recommendations include:

  • Due to the nature of the lionfish invasion, a larger community effort is needed to increase the chances of more successful removal.
  • Setting up an efficient research program is crucial to the successful management of lionfish. Data on lionfish within the infested marine environment will help resource managers make informed decisions.
  • Extensive research on the subject at hand is also vital in explaining and gaining the trust of local stakeholders. If they see that research clearly supports community needs, they are more likely to comply with it.
  • Monitoring (pre- and post- infestation) is essential to assess the extent of the infestation so that management strategies can be adapted to respond to the level of threat.
  • A well-informed community is key in the fight against invasive species.
  • Due to the highly mobile nature of the lionfish invasion, complete eradication of the species is extremely difficult. Efforts should instead focus on actively managing lionfish in island waters, controlling abundance as much as possible.

Funding Summary
The program costs USD $7-10,000 per year.

Lead Organizations
Stichting Nationale Parken Bonaire
Council on International Educational Exchange Research Station
Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance

Read the Honduras Lionfish Case Study in the Reef Resilience Toolkit

Effectiveness of Lionfish Removal Efforts in the Southern Caribbean (pdf)

Invasive Indo-Pacific Lionfish Reduce Recruitment of Atlantic Coral-reef Fishes (pdf)

The Role of Volunteer Divers in Lionfish Research and Control in the Caribbean (pdf)

Biology, Ecology, Control and Management of the Invasive Indo-Pacific Lionfish (pdf)

Lionfish Management Guide (pdf)

Written by: Florence Depondt

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Honduras – Invasive Species

Partnering to Manage Lionfish in the Bay Islands, Honduras

LocationBay Islands, Honduras

The Challenge
The Bay Islands of Honduras are comprised of three main islands with smaller cays surrounding them. Reef systems surround all of the Bay Islands, ranging from barrier to fringing reefs. This is the eastern-most part of the Mesoamerican Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world. The largest island, Roatán, is the capital of the Bay Islands. Since the 1950s, the economy of the Bay Islands has been tightly integrated into global markets, although the nature of that engagement has changed over time. In the 1950s-1960s, the lobster, conch, and shrimp industry was the mainstay of a booming Bay Islands’ economy. Later, in the 1970s, much of the Bay Islands economy came from an influx of diving tourism. Beginning in the 1990s, and continuing to the present, large-scale cruise ship tourism became a driving economic force. As tourism increased so did emigration from mainland Honduras to the Bay Islands. This influx of people put stress on the natural resources in the area. Today, a diverse population inhabits the Bay Islands.

Lionfish have become a major threat to native fish populations throughout the Caribbean and have been documented in the Atlantic since the 1990s. It is theorized that the presence of lionfish is due to the aquarium trade and the accidental release of the fish during various Hurricanes. Another hypothetical avenue for introduction from the Pacific has also been attributed to ballast water. When lionfish were first noticed in Belize in 2008, and soon spotted in the Bay Islands, managers had little time to plan a response. The lionfish began invading the shallow reefs and within two years they could be found around the whole region. In 2009, lionfish (Pterois spp.) were observed in the Bay Islands National Park, a protected area spanning 6,471.5 km2, with several management categories, ranging from no-take zones to multiple use areas.

Lionfish, an invasive species in the Caribbean. © Antonio Busiello.

Lionfish, an invasive species in the Caribbean. © Antonio Busiello.

Managers in the Bay Islands noticed declines in reef fish biomass across the Bay Islands – even in areas with fewer resident lionfish. One alarming discovery was the decrease in cleaner fish like the damselfish (Stegastes spp.). Cleaner fish are comprised of many different species but share a common mutualistic behavior – they feed on the dead skin and parasites of other fish. Cleaner fish are particularly vulnerable because they are unaware that the lionfish are predators and approach the lionfish to remove dead skin and parasites. Researchers were also finding larvae of many native fish in the guts of lionfish when they were dissected.

Actions Taken
In Honduras, the national government provides no funding to manage the reef systems of the Bay Islands, so local and international NGOs must seek grants to support reef management. With the increasing numbers of lionfish on the Bay Islands’ reefs, managers and local NGOs began strategizing ways to rid the area of these invasive species. When lionfish became a problem throughout the Bay Islands and a problem for all NGOs in the region, they decided to join forces to find a strategy to eradicate the invader. They tried using nets, traps, and a “suction method” in which lionfish were siphoned out of the water with a PVC pipe. In addition to this, and, inspired by its success in the eastern Caribbean, managers began to target lionfish by spearfishing. They found spearfishing to be the most successful method to remove the fish.

The local Bay Islands NGOs worked together to successfully petition the Fisheries Department to allow permits for spearfishing lionfish. Both Roatán Marine Park and Bay Islands Conservation Association Utila helped to train divers, such as staff from local dive shops and advanced divers, to find and spear lionfish on the protected reefs. The training helped to foster better relationships between different NGOs in the area. Different local and international NGOs including the Healthy Reefs Initiative, and the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL), began learning from one another and working together.

Funding for the training came from a combination of individual divers paying for training and through a voluntary tax (or user fee) that dive centers agreed to put on their services. Licenses were only given to dive instructors and dive masters. Since most of these volunteers are foreigners with higher incomes, they were able to pay for the licenses themselves. For about $35, volunteers can purchase a license, a spear, and one hour of training. The voluntary tax revenue is put towards eradication of lionfish from the Bay Island reefs as well as patrolling and environmental education.

Diver on Cordelia Banks, Roatan © Dano Pendygrasse.

Local skilled fishers (mainly from the Garifuna community) are also being trained to catch (without SCUBA), clean, cook, and market lionfish. Lionfish can now be found on the menu of 40 restaurants on Utila and Roatán, with fillets being sold to mainland grocery stores and delis.

How Successful Has it Been?
Spearfishing is decreasing numbers of lionfish in the Bay Islands. However, it is only effective if it is done in conjunction with properly managed areas. Though it is too early to tell the overall effect of the spearfishing initiative, ongoing assessments of the reefs reveal that there is an increase in biomass of reef fish where lionfish are hunted.

An ongoing challenge of the spearfishing project is the potential abuse of permit rights. Some local fishermen, who are trained and given licenses, illegally hunt protected reef fish, such as snapper and grouper. This is clearly seen when patrol boats find these fish speared in local fishers boats around the islands.

Lessons Learned and Recommendations

  • Partnerships between local and international NGOs: The widespread lionfish invasion compelled many local NGOs to come together. This partnership has allowed NGOs to pool their resources and expertise and has led to better managed marine protected areas.
  • A united front: The NGOs presenting a united front was important to improving the visibility of Bay Islands’ conservation issues at the national and international level. Where there were once many separately managed MPAs, there is now one large MPA, the Bay Islands National Marine Park. The NGOs coordinate their messages and their initiatives, which has been helpful in asking the government to grant licenses for spearfishing lionfish.
  • The need for a “middle man”: International NGOs like CORAL and the Healthy Reefs Initiative, help to create neutral ground in a contentious local NGO environment. The monitoring training also helped to bring together local NGOs.
  • Spearfishing only works with concurrent management: Reefs that were found to be more resilient to the lionfish invasion were those reefs that were already adequately managed. For example, areas that had better water quality and higher levels of surveillance/enforcement had higher populations of grouper (Epinephelus sp. and Mycteroperca sp.) and other animals that predate lionfish. In areas with higher diversity, unlikely predators might emerge. For example, sharks and eels have been found to prey on lionfish and sharks can be trained by divers to eat lionfish. In shark sanctuary sites there are fewer and smaller lionfish than in sites with fewer sharks.

Funding Summary

Eighty percent of the enforcement and environmental education projects carried out by the Roatán Marine Park are funded through voluntary taxes from dive shops and an eco-store that is locally managed. About 20% of program work is funded through grants.

Lead Organizations
Healthy Reefs Initiative
Coral Reef Alliance
Bay Islands Conservation Association Utila
Roatán Marine Park
Utila Center for Marine Ecology
The Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment Program

Government of Honduras

Roatán Marine Park Lionfish Program

Lionfish Guide to Control and Management (pdf)

Written by: Ian Drysdale, Honduras Coordinator for the Healthy Reefs Initiative
Jenny Myton, Honduras Field Rep for the Coral Reef Alliance
Giacomo Palavicini, Executive Director of the Roatán Marine Park

This case study was adapted from: Cullman, G. (ed.) 2014. Resilience Sourcebook: Case studies of social-ecological resilience in island systems. Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY.

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Lionfish invasion in the Caribbean – Mitigating the Threats of Invasive Alien Species in the Insular Caribbean (MTIASIC)

Lionfish Collection Bahamas

Lionfish removal. © Bahamas Department of Marine Resources

Lionfish are a species endemic to the Indo-Pacific region. However in the 1990’s, due to human introduction, lionfish arrived in the Tropical Western Atlantic and spread along the eastern seaboard of the United States. Since then, lionfish have migrated throughout the Caribbean Basin and into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening biodiversity and local economies. In 2009, the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, St Lucia and Trinidad & Tobago responded to this threat by implementing a regional initiative titled Mitigating the Threats of Invasive Alien Species (IAS) in the Insular Caribbean (MTIASIC). Read Press Release.

The Bahamas has taken the lead to address the lionfish invasion, creating a Lionfish Taskforce to document, collect, and remove lionfish from Bahamian waters. The Taskforce includes representatives from government agencies and local NGOs. Preliminary results from a pilot project to remove lionfish in the Bahamas suggest that invasive species can be effectively managed through public-private sector partnerships with substantial benefits for biodiversity and local economies.

Mr. Frederick Arnett II, Assistant Fisheries Officer with the Department of Marine Resources, has played an integral role in the initiative, helping with lionfish awareness, control and outreach initiatives. We asked Mr. Arnett II a few questions about lionfish control in Bahamas, and here’s what he said:

What are the major issues and impacts regarding the lionfish invasion in the Caribbean?

In the Caribbean, lionfish pose a significant threat to biodiversity and local economies, most notably the fishing industry and tourism sector. Most people tend to paint a grim picture regarding the impacts of the lionfish invasion in the Caribbean. However, the insurgence of this crafty invader has encouraged action, communication, collaboration, exchange, and proactive thinking among Caribbean neighbors. Caribbean states have partnered to share experiences, techniques, and advice. Their governments have been lobbied to draft and reform legislation where gaps exist. Communities have also been galvanized to take action and participate in management efforts.

What are some of the strategies you are implementing to deal with the invasive lionfish in the Caribbean?

The following strategies are being implemented throughout the Caribbean to address the invasion:

  • Outreach initiatives including lionfish workshops, trainings on methods for safe capture and response to invasion, handling and culinary demonstrations, poster competitions, air public service announcements and short educational programs;

    Lionfish Preparation

    Lionfish culinary demonstration. © Bahamas Department of Marine Resources

  • Exchange of information and experiences via conferences and workshops
  • Support for lionfish tournaments and derbies;
  • Policy amendments to encourage lionfish control efforts;
  • Research in the areas of lionfish ecology, biology and invasion;
  • Creation of markets for lionfish meat.


What are some of the challenges you encounter when trying to control lionfish in your region?

Several challenges the Caribbean we continue to face are:

  • Limited human capacity and training opportunities available to effectively capture, handle and remove lionfish;
  • General hesitance of locals to participate in efforts to control lionfish through regular consumption;
  • Creating, developing and sustaining local/regional markets for lionfish meat;
  • Lack of political will to act, i.e. amending and drafting of new legislation where necessary;
  • Lack of sustainable funding to support ongoing removal efforts.


If lionfish populations are not controlled, what potential long term impact do you foresee for the Caribbean Region?

Long term impacts to the Caribbean may include a significant loss of biodiversity within the region. This loss is expected to jeopardize the health of ecologically important marine ecosystems (e.g. coral reefs, mangrove systems, sea grasses, etc.) and local economies (e.g. fisheries and tourism sector) that depend upon them.

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Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012, Executive Summary

Since the early 1980s Caribbean coral reefs have suffered massive losses of corals. Impacts from human population growth, overfishing, coastal pollution, global warming and invasive species have resulted in decrease of coral populations, increases of seaweeds, outbreaks of coral bleaching and disease, and failure of corals to recover from natural disturbances. This study analyses the status and trends of reef communities throughout the wider Caribbean. Metadata on the nature of the reef environment, depth and history of human population growth, fishing, hurricanes, coral bleaching and disease was compiled and analyzed. In some cases, biological information for coral and macroalgal cover, abundance of grazing sea urchin Diadema antillarum, and biomass of fishes such as grazing parrotfish was also obtained. Results imply that the three best predictors of the decline in Caribbean coral cover over the past 30 or more years are: (a) outbreaks of Acropora and Diadema diseases (1970s and early 1980s); (b) overpopulation, including increase in tourism; and (c) overfishing of herbivores, particularly parrotfish. Coastal pollution is also significant and increasingly warming seas is also a threat but so far, extreme heating events have had only localized effects.

In summary, the degradation of Caribbean reefs has occurred in three distinct phases: (1) Massive losses of Acropora (mid-1970s to early 1980s) due to White Band Disease; (2) Increase in macroalgal cover and decrease in coral cover following the mass mortality of Diadema (1983) and (3) Continuation of the patterns established in Phase 2 worsened by more overfishing, coastal pollution, tourism, and extreme warming events. Four major recommendations for management emerge from this report:

  1. Adopt conservation and fisheries management strategies to restore parrotfish populations;
  2. Simplify and standardize monitoring of Caribbean reefs and make the results available on an annual basis;
  3. Foster communication and exchange of information;
  4. Develop and implement adaptive legislation and regulations to ensure that threats to coral reefs are systematically addressed.

Author: Jackson, J.B.C.
Year: 2014
View Executive Summary
View Full Report

Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.

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Managing fisheries for reef resilience: Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area

Herbivore protection and strong community support: will this be enough to increase fish biomass, decrease algal blooms, and enhance reef resilience?

Significant increases of invasive algae are seen as a major threat to West Maui’s coral reefs. At Kāʻanapali, red algal blooms had become much more abundant, likely as a result of elevated nutrients from wastewater and fertilizers. Despite the sources of land-based pollution, the increasing abundance of algae was exacerbated by the fact that there was a decrease in abundance of reef grazing herbivores. The State of Hawai‘i designated the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area in order to control the overabundance of marine algae on coral reefs and restore the marine ecosystem back to a healthy balance. Public awareness has increased, but we’re still waiting to see if the management plan restores health to the reef. Read more in the Kahekili case study.


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