Invasive species represent the second most significant cause of species extinction worldwide after habitat destruction, and in islands, they are undisputedly first. The impacts of alien invasive species are immense, insidious, and usually irreversible - IUCN
FORT LAUDERDALE/DAVIE, Fla. – As the old saying goes: “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”
Nowhere is this more evident than with the spread of lionfish, an invasive, non-native species that is threatening the marine ecosystems across the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean. And one researcher at Nova Southeastern University (NSU)continues working to learn as much about lionfish as he can.
“I’ve been studying this specific invasive species for many years and it’s clear the threat it poses to our reefs and marine environment is real,” said Matthew Johnston, Ph.D., a research scientist at NSU’s Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography. “As with all
invasives, without any natural predators to keep things in balance, the one species can come to dominate the others.”
Johnston is also a member of the NSU Guy Harvey Research Institute (GHRI) research team. His latest research paper, published by the journal Coral Reefs, can be viewed ONLINE.
In his latest study, Johnston said that lionfish now permeate the entire tropical western Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, but their numbers have been surveyed only in select locations in the field. What hasn’t been shown is their potential abundance and the related effect high lionfish numbers may have on the “economically important” reef fishes. It is this data that is needed – and quickly – to help mitigate the damage lionfish could cause.
Johnston said that whenever researchers examine a lionfish specimen they are finding all sorts of juvenile fish they’ve eaten, and therein lies the problem. With no natural predators to keep lionfish in check, they are free to reproduce in great numbers. Couple that with their propensity to eat a significant quantity of juvenile fish, it’s only a matter of time until those other fish species start to see a decline in their numbers on the reef.
According to the study, the west Florida shelf and the entire offshore Texas coast could be on the verge of seeing dramatically high densities of lionfish, based on ocean conditions (water flow, etc.,) which help spread the invasive species and concentrate them to new areas. Johnston said that the west Florida Shelf is a high-production fishery, especially for red grouper, and that projection model shows the grouper in areas that are expected to have high lionfish populations in the future.
“It’s a never-ending battle as we’ll never fully eradicate lionfish from our waters,” Johnston said. “What we need to do is not only understand where they are right now but also work to forecast where they will be in the future. We also need to identify better ways of controlling their numbers, especially in deep water.”
Johnston understands that for many people, this threat doesn’t resonate.
“We’re talking millions of dollars in the fishing industries – from catching and selling various fish to the hundreds of thousands of jobs and the recreational aspects of fishing,” he said. “If left unchecked, there is the real potential that lionfish will have a negative impact on the fishing industry. After all, they are eating the same fish that our grouper and snapper rely on for food, and sometimes even the baby grouper and snapper themselves. In other words, it’s likely that they are negatively impacting populations of the fish we like to eat, and at an alarming rate. That’s why we must work to keep them under control so their impact on other fish is kept as reasonable as possible”
Johnston has published other studies related to the spread of lionfish. You can read more about Johnston’s research online:
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Established in 1999, the Guy Harvey Research Institute (GHRI) is a collaboration between the renowned marine artist, scientist and explorer, Dr. Guy Harvey, and Nova Southeastern University's Oceanographic Center. The mission of the GHRI is to provide the scientific information necessary to understand, conserve, and effectively manage the world's marine fishes and their ecosystems. The GHRI is one of only a handful of private organizations dedicated exclusively to the science-based conservation of marine fish populations and biodiversity. The research, education and outreach activities of the GHRI are supported by the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, AFTCO Inc., extramural research grants, philanthropic donations by private businesses and individuals, and NSU. Track the sharks tagged by the GHRI with our web app.
Lionfish populations have expanded throughout the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico and threaten native reef ecosystems. The introduction of an exotic species with no natural predators threatens to destabilize the delicate natural balance of our local waters. OceanGate's professional crew, supplemented by leading researchers and select expedition participants, will execute at least four dives over two days utilizing a high power fish collection system to capture lionfish.
Global Invertebrate Genomics Alliance - Describing the wide functional and structural diversity of invertebrates requires an integrated approach that includes not only traditional biological sciences (e.g., anatomy, ecology, behavior, physiology, paleontology), but the burgeoning interdisciplinary efforts of genomics. Following on the success of the human genome project and the current progress of the vertebrate Genome 10K project (Genome 10K Community of Scientists, 2009), GIGA proposes to assemble or assist in the coordination and collection of samples spanning the broad spectrum of (non-insect/ non-nematode) invertebrate phylogenetic diversity suitable for whole-genome sequencing.