New Rule Banning Import of Lionfish to Florida Could be Slippery Slope

The small Mombasa lionfish (Pterois mombassae) will no longer be legal to import to Florida beginning 1 August.

The small Mombasa lionfish (Pterois mombassae) will no longer be legal to import to Florida beginning 1 August. Photo Courtesy of Scott Michael/CORAL Magazine

The smallest lionfish from the genus Pterois is the Mombasa lionfish (P. mombasae). It reaches a maximum size of 20 cm TL. The largest lionfish from the genus Dendrochirus (aka the dwarf lionfishes) is the zebra turkeyfish (D. zebra). It reaches a maximum size of 25 cm TL. Both genera are considered to be very similar–so similar, in fact, that scientists have argued they should be one genus. For example, in “Molecular phylogeny of the lionfish genera Dendrochirus and Pterois,” a 2003 paper published in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, Kochzius et al write:

Even though not all species of the genera Dendrochirus and Pterois could be considered in the present molecular phylogeny, it suggests that separate genera are not warranted. This supports the classification of Dendrochirus spp. as members of the genus Pterois by Klunzinger (1870), Günther (1873), and Beaufort and Briggs (1962).

Despite these similarities, a rule approved unanimously today by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) drew a stark distinction between the two fishes and their genera. Effective 1 August 2014, the Mombasa lionfish will be banned from import into the state, while the larger zebra turkeyfish will be allowed.

Critics of the rule question the logic of banning one and allowing the other, and they fear that the ban itself could set a precedent that has wide-ranging effects on the marine aquarium trade both in Florida and nationwide.

Guilty by Association

Lionfish Rules

In a controversial move, the State of Florida decided to ban all members of the genus Pterois rather than just the two species that are invasive in Florida.

The reason for the ban on imports of the Mombasa lionfish and all other lionfishes of the genus Pterois is because the two largest members of the non-native genus are currently considered established and invasive in Florida waters. The volitans lionfish (P. volitans) and the devil firefish (P. miles) are 38 and 35 cm TL respectively, and are wreaking havoc on native species throughout the western Atlantic.

It is believed by most experts on the western Atlantic lionfish invasion that these fishes were first introduced to Florida waters by aquarists who released them either because of the destruction they were causing in their aquaria or because the fish outgrew the aquarium altogether. The new FWC rules, which include several rules with widespread support, are meant to help control these invasive fishes in Florida waters.

Most stakeholders agree that banning imports of the volitans lionfish and the devil firefish is appropriate. Not only will such an action eliminate the potential for future introductions, but it will also provide additional economic incentive for harvest of the two species in state waters to fill the demand of Florida-based aquarium fish importers and wholesalers who will no longer be able to import these popular aquarium fishes from their native range. While most support FWC in banning the two invasive species, many stakeholders take issue with the rules’ definition of lionfish as “any finfish of the genus Pterois.” This concern, along with several others, was voiced at every opportunity for public comment preceding today’s decision but, unlike the other concerns, has never been addressed formally or publicly by FWC staff.

Critics of the new rules point out that no species of lionfish from any genus has ever been reported in Florida waters except for the volitans lionfish and the devil firefish. Banning the import of the eight other species of lionfish in the genus Pterois would amount to “guilt by association,” instead of a decision based on sound science.

Wide-Ranging Effects?

Those critical of the import ban on lionfishes from the genus Pterois worry that banning eight marine species (especially in the absence of any public, data-driven risk assessment) because of the risk they might pose is opening the gates to a very slippery slope. In trying to better understand the situation and why the whole genus is being painted with the same broad brush, I have consistently requested interviews with FWC scientists, as FWC’s stated desired outcome is to use science to provide the framework within which decisions are made. My requests for interviews with FWC scientists have been denied, and instead an FWC spokesperson told me the following:

“The species that belong within this genus all have similar biology and characteristics to the two species that have been successful in invading Florida waters. This indicates that others within that genus might be successful.”

If FWC feels the risk is so great that the diminutive Mombasa lionfish should be banned because it’s related to the much larger invasive volitans lionfish, then isn’t it equally justified to also ban the import of the zebra turkeyfish? The zebra turkeyfish is, after all, larger than the Mombasa lionfish and, according to the scientific literature, also closely related.

And if FWC feels banning the Mombasa lionfish from import may be justified, then shouldn’t they also be considering banning some of the more than 30 other non-native marine aquarium species that are already listed as either “reported” or “established” in Florida waters as a result of “probable aquarium release”?

After all, the groupers from the family Serranidae pose a much greater, documentable risk than the Mombasa lionfish, don’t they?

The FWC new rules, and specifically the ban on the import of lionfish from the genus Pterois, will be the cover story of the next issue of CORAL Magazine. Stay tuned for far more in-depth analysis…this story is far from over.

About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
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4 Responses to New Rule Banning Import of Lionfish to Florida Could be Slippery Slope

  1. James H Cowan says:

    Somebody needs to get on touch with the numb nuts that are featured in the TV show “Tanked”. They include lion fish in almost every build of large aquariums. These guys should be throttled for their ignorance of bad situation made worse by their show.

    James H. Cowan, Jr. Louisiana State University Sent from my iPhone 225-892-9405

    Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known–Carl Sagan

  2. Pingback: Lionfish Import Ban approved by Florida FWC; Could be Slippe

  3. I’ll be keen to see what follows from this move. I suspect it’s on a precipice now, and could either represent the thin end of a wedge driven deeper into the American aquarium scene, or could be enough of a sacrificial lamb to appease the most vociferous of trade and hobby opponents. Kudos for an entirely factual and unhysterical piece on the subject, and I’d only hope those on the other side of the divide can show the same restraint.

  4. Pingback: The 800-Pound Tankbuster in the Room

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