Lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific, were accidentally released into the Atlantic in the 1980s and first documented in Belizean waters in 2008. With an extremely high rate of reproduction and no native predators outside the Indo-Pacific, the species poses a serious threat to Caribbean reefs, given its voracious appetite for juvenile fish and invertebrates.

The spread of invasive lionfish across the Wider Caribbean [credit: REEF]

Stimulating a new market for lionfish 

Since 2008, Belize's lionfish population has grown explosively, with devastating consequences. With fish stocks declining throughout Belize, diversification of artisanal fisheries to target this invasive species represents a new opportunity to alleviate pressure on threatened coral reefs and traditional fisheries – in particular conch and lobster - while helping to mitigate the devastating ecological impacts of the lionfish invasion.

Using lionfish as an alternative seafood target species: 
  • increases removal efforts, reducing pressure on juvenile reef fish and competition for resources with native groupers and lobsters.
  • is sustainable, as there are no concerns for over-depletion of the stock.
  • diversifies fisheries, reducing pressure on Belize's two main targets, conch and lobster, both considered to have populations in decline.
  • provides fishers with an alternative target species with no seasonal closures or size limits, reducing incentive for illegal fishing.
  • provides consumers with a sustainable seafood choice.


How do we support market development? 

We are actively supporting efforts to commercialise Belize's nascent 'lionfishery' through work with fishers, consumers, restaurants, fishing cooperatives and seafood distributors.
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Safe-handling demonstrations for fishers have been held regularly in Sarteneja, the largest fishing village in Belize, since 2011, providing practical training in adapting fishing techniques to target lionfish. To overcome the fear of envenomation, simple first aid for lionfish stings (submerage the affected area in hot water immediately) and the removal of venomous spines is explained at each session. From 2014, these demonstrations are being held in fishing communities throughout Belize.

Taster and information events have successfully raised the profile of lionfish caught in Belize as an edible, tasty fish; it is now becoming a regular sight on restaurant menus, and increasingly used for home cooking in Sarteneja.

Supporting restaurants wanting to to incorporate lionfish into their menus is critical in building the domestic market for lionfish in Belize. Linking restaurants to suppliers, providing samples for chefs to test recipes, and marketing assistance through menu inserts and posters are all available to restaurateurs with an interest in serving sustainable seafood.

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I came to know of lionfish thanks to Blue Ventures... I learned how to clean lionfish, and how harmful it is for our environment and fisheries. Most people didn't even know what this fish was, so we invited them to try it and they find it delicious! - Pablito, owner of the Estrellas del Mar restaurant in Sarteneja
 Fishing cooperatives and seafood distributors: we are working closely with the Placencia Producers' Cooperative Society Limited (Belize) and Traditional Fisheries (USA), to support the establishment of Belize's first commercial lionfish handling facility. Although initially established for international export, high demand from local restaurants and prohibitive shipping costs has led to this facility being used exclusively to supply local markets.

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Belize’s first export of lionfish was processed at the Placencia Cooperative’s new, fully certified fish processing facility – the first to handle lionfish. Publicity surrounding its establishment led to an increase in local demand and sparked interest amongst other exporters.

With the demand for invasive lionfish fillets in the USA currently outweighing supply by over 3 tonnes per month, we are working with the Sarteneja Fishermen Association and the Northern Fishermen Cooperative Society Limited, one of Belize’s largest fishing cooperatives, to develop avenues for bulk export of frozen lionfish to the USA.

Lionfish management in no-take zones 

To prevent protected areas from providing replenishment and spill-over for lionfish, special management must be applied within no-take zones (NTZs). We are therefore promoting the use of lionfish derbies, such as the Placencia Lionfish Tournament as well as lionfish spearing by recreational divers for management within these NTZs.

Another strategy, feeding lionfish to native predators, is not recommended. Lionfish are covered in venomous spines and envenomation can be fatal to fish – many of which are listed as endangered or have populations in decline. Furthermore, in areas where lionfish were frequently being fed to predators, sharks, groupers and moray eels now associate divers and spears with food. The resulting aggressive behaviour has made it impossible to continue lionfish removal efforts in the area, having the opposite of the initially desired effect.

Do lionfish removals work?

Yes. With eradication no longer believed possible, efforts are now focussed on lionfish population suppression, limiting negative impacts on coral reefs and fisheries. Demonstrating that this tactic works, a recently published study shows that reducing lionfish populations to predetermined target densities allows native fish populations to recover.

However, due to the fast rate at which invasive lionfish reproduce, populations are able to recover quickly from intensive removal efforts. To inform management and ensure lionfish populations are maintained at target densities, we are conducting research to determine the immediate impact and recovery rate of lionfish populations following intensive removal efforts.

Get involved

We are now introducing lionfish expeditions to involve volunteers in our work and contribute to research aiming to monitor the progression of the invasion in Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve, as well as to inform regional invasive lionfish research priorities.

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Publications

ciguateraandlionfishthumb   Chapman-et-al---GCFI-Manuscript-1
Ciguatera and Lionfish   GCFI Manuscript 2013