Invasive Species
Florida Keys

The impact from lionfish as an invasive species on reef food webs could be pervasive and severe because their prey base includes many species of fish and invertebrates. Credit: FKNMS, NOAA

Why is it a concern?

Non-indigenous species are recognized worldwide as a major threat to ecosystem integrity when they become invasive. Non-indigenous species in the marine environment can alter community composition, reduce the abundance and diversity of native marine species, interfere with ecosystem function, alter habitats, disrupt commercial and recreational activities, and in some instances cause extinctions of indigenous plants and animals. They can cause local extinction of native species either by preying on them directly or by out-competing them for food or space. Once established, non-indigenous species can be difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate. Invasions by non-indigenous species are increasingly common worldwide in coastal habitats due to shipping traffic, world travel, and intentional or accidental releases by individuals. Though the most significant global mechanism for the introduction of aquatic species is ship ballast water, it can occur via other mechanisms such as improper disposal of household aquarium pets, commercial aquaculture operations, and research activities.

First reported in south Florida in the 1980s, the Indo-Pacific lionfishes (Pterois volitans and P. miles) are now well established along the southeast U.S. coast and the Caribbean, including Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.  Because the lionfish prey base includes many species of fish and invertebrates, their impact on reef food webs (ergo the local economy) could be pervasive and severe.  The Red-tipped Sea Goddess, (Glosssodoris sedna), a nudibranch native to the tropical Pacific, has also become well-established in the Florida Keys, and although they are seasonally abundant in a variety of habitats, it is unknown if they pose a threat to any resources in the sanctuary.  Likewise, the population of non-indigenous orange cup coral (Tubastraea coccinea) has expanded since it was first observed offshore of Key Largo in 1999, but has been confined thus far to artificial substrates.  Climate change may allow species to expand (invade) their range into formerly inhabitable areas, thus more research is needed to help sanctuary managers develop realistic and practicable solutions to non-indigenous invasions.


Overview of Research

Research conducted by Sanctuary scientists and partners provides critical information to address existing and emerging resource conservation and management issues. The Overview of Research highlights some, but not necessarily all, of the research activities completed or ongoing at the Sanctuary.

Project Name PI and contacts Links

Coral Reef Evaluation and Monitoring Project (CREMP)

Rob Ruzicka

Rapid Assessment and Monitoring of Coral Reef Habitats

Steven Miller

Reef Fish


Lionfish Removal & Recolonization

Stephanie Green

Ecological Impacts on Native Fish & Benthic Communities

Stephanie Green

Habitat Utilization Characteristics of Lionfish

Stephanie Green

Aging and Age Validation of Lionfish


No URL available.

Effectiveness of Lionfish Attraction Devices


Lionfish Impacts on the Spiny Lobster Fishery

Dominque Lazarre

Changing Perceptions of Place and Conservation

REEF and Nova Southeastern University

No URL available.


Science Needs and Questions

The best available science is used by Sanctuary scientists and managers working to address priority resource conservation and management issues. As priorities change and new issues emerge, each Sanctuary develops new science needs and questions and works with partners to address them.

  • How should resource managers prioritize control efforts on particular invasive species populations in the Florida Keys?
  • What are the most important considerations of species range expansion (invasions) due to climate change, and how will they effect FKNMS management?
  • How is the lionfish population changing over time in FKNMS?
  • What locations (depths, habitat types, etc.) are colonized or recolonized most quickly?
  • How effective is removal in controlling invasive lionfish and how are native populations responding?
  • How much effort is required to control lionfish in FKNMS, and is this effort sustainable?
  • Assess impact to reefs caused by divers hunting lionfish.
  • Assess economic impacts of the lionfish invasion.

Education and Outreach Material

As part of the effort to increase detection, reporting and response, the sanctuary has worked with REEF to conduct public workshops and training sessions for on-water professionals. The sanctuary has issued permits to these professionals to remove lionfish in Sanctuary Preservation Areas (no-take zones). Additional workshops continue to train and engage local communities in collecting and handling techniques in efforts to effect successful removals.

To help prevent the establishment of new non-native fishes in Florida’s marine waters, NOAA’s NCCOS, the USGS and REEF recently published the "Field Guide to Nonindigenous Marine Fishes of Florida" as part of their efforts to detect and remove non-native marine fishes as soon as they are discovered. The guide provides descriptions and illustrations of non-native marine fish species that have been seen along Florida’s coasts, and includes maps of the sightings. It is hoped that divers, fishermen, and others will use the guide to report non-native species immediately in order to help prevent their rapid establishment.


Albins, M. and M. Hixon. 2008. Invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish Pterois volitans reduce recruitment of Atlantic coral-reef fishes. Marine Ecology Progress Series 367:233-238.

Fenner, D. and K. Banks. 2004. Orange cup coral Tubastraea coccinea invades Florida and the Flower Garden Banks, Northwestern Gulf of Mexico. Coral Reefs 23:505-507.

Ferry, R. 2009. Range expansion of an invasive coral species into South Florida and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary: investigating the ecological impact and source of the invasion. Wetlands, Coastal and Oceans Branch, EPA, Region 4. 6pp.

Morris, J.A., Jr., J.L. Akins, A. Barse, D. Cerino, D.W. Freshwater, S.J. Green, R.C. Munoz, C. Paris, P.E. Whitfield. 2009. Biology and ecology of the invasive lionfishes, Pterois miles and Pterois volitans. Proceedings of the 61st Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute November 10 - 14, 2008 Gosier, Goudeloupe, French West Indies.

Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. 2011. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Condition Report 2011. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Silver Spring, MD. 105 pp.

Ruiz-Carus, R., R.E. Matheson, D.E. Roberts and P.E. Whitfield. 2006. The western Pacific red lionfish, Pterois volitans (Scorpaenidae). In: Florida: Evidence for reproduction and parasitism in the first exotic marine fish established in state waters. Biol. Conserv. 128(March):384-390.

Schofield, P.J., J.A. Morris, Jr., L. Akins. 2009. Field Guide to Nonindigenous Marine Fishes of Florida. NOAA Technical Memorandum NOS NCCOS 92. Electronic document available from: