Lionfish Invasion Map

Lionfish are members of the family Scorpaenidae (Scorpionfishes) which includes many of the world’s most venomous species. Lionfish are originally native to the Indian and Pacific oceans but two species (Pterois) volitans and P. (miles) were introduced to the Atlantic in 1986 by accidental release from storm damage to aquariums and careless dumping from the pet industry. From the mid 1980’s lionfish have spread throughout the West Atlantic, including as far north as New York and Bermuda and as far south to Venezuela.  Lionfish were first recorded in Belize in December 2008 at Turneffe Atoll and on the Belize Barrier Reef in January 2009 and their numbers have been increasing dramatically since. 

The Belize Fisheries Department conducted a population assessment in 2015 and estimated that 733,257 lionfish were present on the Belize Barrier Reef (including the main barrier, backreef and atolls). Across the Belize Barrier Reef the South Water Caye Marine Reserve where Tobacco Caye is located was estimated to have the highest numbers of lionfish. In No Take Zones, the observed density of lionfish far exceeded predicted threshold levels, indicating that urgent management to prevent loss of fish biomass and species richness is required in NTZ areas. That is why Tobacco Caye Marine Station’s lionfish culling campaign is of paramount importance! 

Lionfish threshold in SWCMR

Why are lionfish a problem?

  • Invasive (non-native) 
  • Venomous 
  • Voracious predators 
  • Preying on 100 different prey species 
  • 17x denser in Atlantic than native range 
  • No natural predators in the Atlantic 
  • 30-year lifespan 
  • Lionfish can dislocate their jaw to engulf prey up to 2/3 of their body size (that’s the equivalent of a human eating a sheep in one bite)
  • Ecological generalists – thrive in diverse habitats, from the surface to 1,000 ft depth
  • High fecundity – females reach reproductive maturity in less than a year and can produce 50,000 eggs every 4 days
Before-after Lionfish invasion
Lionfish Containment Unit and Spear.

The venomous lionfish sting:

  • Not deadly. 
  • Does hurt! 
  • Can cause swelling, nausea and seizures.
  • Immerse affected area in hot water (43 C or 110 F) to treat
  • Neuro-muscular toxin.
  • Pain can last for day

The Tobacco Caye Marine Station (TCMS) lionfish study aims to collect information on the invasion of P. (miles) and P. (volitans) in accordance with Green, S., Akins, J. L., Morris, J. A. 2012. Lionfish Dissection: Techniques and Applications. NOAA Technical. Memoranda NOS NCCOS 139. Our lionfish culling project involves the following: 

  • Goal: To remove and monitor the invasive lionfish population around the South Water Caye Marine Reserve. 
  • During snorkel and dive trips around the South Water Caye Marine Reserve we search for lionfish present in the mangroves, seagrass, coral reefs, and around man-made objects. 
  • Once identified they are safely speared using a pole spear and they are securely stored in our lionfish containment zookeeper unit.
  • TCMS sponsors local fishermen $10 BZD per lionfish as part of our bounty campaign to engage and motivate the local community in helping to eradicate lionfish. 
  • After lionfish have been captured, they are: weighed, measurements are taken for standard length, mouth gape width and height, dissected specimens to determine the presence of reproductive organs and contents of stomachs. 
  • Finally the lionfish meat is filleted off to be used in any number of delicious recipes – our favorite is ceviche! 

Check out our website for our research reports, which are released in August of every year, where you can check out our data collection and results from our lionfish culling project. To date TCMS has culled over 500 lionfish from around the South Water Caye Marine Reserve and has helped provide a key source of income to numerous local fishermen.