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What eats lionfish

May 1, 2017 1 Comment
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Cormorant with a lionfish

Cormorant with a lionfish

Do lionfish have predators? What eats lionfish in the Atlantic?

This is one of the most frequently asked questions that we hear. If lionfish are not a problem in the Indo-Pacific region why are their invasive populations expanding in the Atlantic, what eats lionfish over there in their home range? Unfortunately, because lionfish are NOT a problem in their native range, not much study had been done on them prior to the lionfish becoming an invasive species in the Atlantic. From our FAQ page, “Natural predators in the Indo-Pacific and Red Sea that are known to eat lionfish include sharks, cornetfish, grouper, large eels, frogfish and other scorpionfish. There is speculation that large snapper and some species of trigger fish eat lionfish in their native ranges as well.”

Sharks being trained to eat lionfish, widely considered a bad practice

Sharks being trained to eat lionfish, widely considered a bad practice

Eating lionfish and being a predator of lionfish are very different

There are many animals that will eat a lionfish when it is wounded or being chased. I have shot at and missed a lionfish (yes, it happens occasionally) only to have a moray eel fly out of a nearby ledge and pounce on the fleeing lionfish. In this popular video a grouper in Cayman can be seen herding and eating a lionfish, but again this is not natural predation because the grouper has been trained by being fed lionfish and still has a human there (with camera) giving an assist to the grouper. Many photos have been taken of sharks, grouper, and mutton snapper being fed speared lionfish also. In Cozumel, I have seen giant mutton snapper follow us like puppy dogs looking for a hand out of speared lionfish, and trigger fish are also known to go berserk and pick away on a wounded lionfish. But these are all examples of opportunistic feeding with human interaction and not true natural predation of lionfish.

Spotted Moray eel that coughed up a lionfish

Spotted Moray eel that coughed up a lionfish

Moray eel eats lionfish

Recently Roldan Muñoz, a research fishery biologist for NOAA, published a paper documenting the discovery of a spotted Moray eel that was brought up far offshore of Jacksonville, FL that coughed up a lionfish when it landed on deck. This is the first verified example of natural predation of the invasive lionfish in the Atlantic Ocean because the Moray was found in an area where divers would not have been hunting. Munoz cautioned however, “The eel is not the panacea here…All I’m trying to say is we should potentially look into this in more detail…We don’t really have as good an understanding of how many eels are on reefs.”

Moray eel with lionfish spines in mouth (Photo by ReefCI)

Moray eel with lionfish spines in mouth (Photo by ReefCI)

Does it hurt fish to eat venomous lionfish?

Great question, I’ve seen grown men cry from a lionfish sting so it’s no joke, how can other fish eat them without suffering? The best answer we’ve heard is that because fish are cold blooded the venom does not have as much effect as it does on a warm-blooded animal. For this same reason it has been shown that venomous snakes which feed on cold-blooded prey tend to have stronger venom than those eating warm-blooded food. It should be remembered that the lionfish does not use its venom to attack and harm, but rather it is purely for defensive purpose.

Invasive lionfish have one main predator

So, we’ve seen that there are other marine species out there eating the occasional lionfish, but to the question what eats lionfish, at the moment there is only one effective and proficient predator that is making a dent in the lionfish population and that is us, humans. We have shown through targeted removals we can make a difference by hunting lionfish, and until nature establishes its own equilibrium it will continue to be up to divers everywhere to keep the invasive lionfish in check.

About the Author:

Andy is a former US Navy Diver and Submariner, 20 year PADI Dive Instructor, USCG 100 ton Captain, Inventor & entrepreneur, manufacturer, Yachtbroker, skilled mechanic & electrician, and an avid hunter of lionfish.

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  1. Judy Mitchell says:

    Thank you for this informative article. It has answered a question many of us have asked.

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