Lionfish Research Paper
From 1958-67, Walter A. Starck II conducted marine biological studies in the area of Alligator Reef, off of Islamorada in the Florida Keys, these included extensive fish collecting. In 1968, he published A list of fishes of Alligator Reef.
Over the half-century since the original Alligator Reef survey, there have been great advances in the taxonomy of Greater Caribbean reef fishes, with numerous changes in scientific names and classification. As part of the update these changes are addressed so as to bring the list to current status.
In 2013 the junior authors (REEF Advanced Assessment Team members) undertook a four-year census of the fishes of the area with a goal to photo-document as many of their sightings as possible. This effort has subsequently entailed 1039 combined dives devoted to fish counts, photographic documentation, or both. During these surveys, they have photographed 278 of the species reported by Starck (1968) plus 35 additional and/or newly described or reclassified species not recorded in the earlier study.
An update of the checklist of fishes of Alligator Reef and environs some fifty years later provides an unparalleled opportunity to evaluate the species richness for a limited reef area, as well as a unique opportunity to explore changes in diversity over a half-century time scale. In the updated study the authors added 107 species and subtracted 5 from the original total of 516 species: thus the checklist now totals 618 species, of 122 families, the most recorded for any similarly sized area in the New World. The additional species records are made up from a number of subsequent collections as well as from a comprehensive effort by the junior authors.
Among the other databases of relevance to the study area used for comparison, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) Shorefishes of the Greater Caribbean by D.R. Robertson & J. Van Tassell and that of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF).
REEF maintains an online database of worldwide visual fish-count surveys conducted by volunteer researchers and fish-count enthusiasts. While such surveys are biased towards easily observed species, they are indicative for a large portion of the reef fish fauna and comprise a valuable source of comparative information (Schmitt & Sullivan 1996, Pattengill-Semmens & Semmens 2003, Holt et al. 2013). The local REEF data includes that of the Estapés, who have conducted 185 roving-diver REEF surveys on Alligator Reef. An additional 1807 surveys at 94 sites in the study area have also been conducted by other REEF volunteers (as of July, 3, 2016).
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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.
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"
Materials provided by Nova Southeastern University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
- Matthew W. Johnston, Andrea M. Bernard, Mahmood S. Shivji. Forecasting lionfish sources and sinks in the Atlantic: are Gulf of Mexico reef fisheries at risk?Coral Reefs, 2016; 36 (1): 169 DOI: 10.1007/s00338-016-1511-3
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Nova Southeastern University. "Spread of lionfish in Gulf of Mexico is threat to reef fisheries." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 February 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/02/170214163633.htm>.
Nova Southeastern University. (2017, February 14). Spread of lionfish in Gulf of Mexico is threat to reef fisheries. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 14, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/02/170214163633.htm
Nova Southeastern University. "Spread of lionfish in Gulf of Mexico is threat to reef fisheries." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/02/170214163633.htm (accessed March 14, 2018).