First-Known Lionfish Caught in Florida's Gulf Coast Waters

In October 2006, FWRI researchers received the first-known lionfish caught in Florida's Gulf coast waters.

Red Lionfish Found in Gulf of Mexico

In October 2006, researchers at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) received the first-known lionfish caught in Florida's Gulf coast waters.

The lionfish was caught by a citizen in Treasure Island in Pinellas County. FWRI biologists identified the species as Pterois volitans, the red lionfish, a member of the Family Scorpaenidae or scorpionfishes. Lionfish are not native to Florida waters. The fish measured slightly more than a foot long and weighed almost two-and-a-half pounds. Testing indicates the fish was a mature male. A red tide bloom has been present in the area where the fish was retrieved. Toxin testing indicated the red lionfish was exposed to a minimal amount of brevetoxin, which is the toxin produced by the red tide organism, Karenia brevis. This suggests the lionfish was not in Gulf Coast waters for a long period of time. FWRI is conducting analyses of parasites and DNA to substantiate that this fish was recently introduced to state waters.

The red lionfish is venomous and can inject venom with the dorsal, anal, and pelvic fin spines, which may cause severe local pain, numbness, paralysis, respiratory illness, and in rare cases, death. Serious wounds have also resulted from the careless handling of recently dead specimens. Lionfish should be treated with care at all times.

Red lionfish are a food fish in some parts of its native range, but are mainly an ornamental fish of importance in the international aquarium fish trade. Red lionfish occur naturally throughout the western Pacific Ocean from both southern Japan and Korea to the east coast of Australia, Indonesia, Micronesia, and French Polynesia and in the South Pacific Ocean from western Australia to the Marquesas Islands. Red lionfish have been reported off Bermuda and from Rhode Island to Florida. The sightings in Florida waters have been off the coasts of Jacksonville, St. Augustine, Palm Beach, and Boca Raton.

Lionfish are a popular choice for marine aquarists. Unfortunately, when some people decide they no longer want to care for a fish like this, they may consider releasing it into Florida waters. Many people do not understand the difference between native and non-native species; others believe releasing unwanted pets into Florida's environment is harmless. However, releasing a non-native species is illegal in Florida, as well as unethical and ecologically unsound.

Most unwanted, nonnative pets that are released into the wild will die. However, there is the chance that an exotic species will survive, reproduce, and become an established population. Some established non-natives can become invasive species, which have the potential to negatively impact native species and natural habitats. Invasive species are often considered pests, and can do millions of dollars of damage to agricultural crops, pose health threats to humans, or become a nuisance to homeowners. Responsible pet owners can take unwanted pets to their local humane society or animal shelter, take them to FWC sponsored Exotic Pet Amnesty Days, check out adoption opportunities with local interest groups that specialize in the specific type of pet, or donate the pet to a local pet shop.

To view more images of red lionfish, visit the Flickr set. For more information on nonnative species, visit the Nonnative Species section.

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