Experimental assessment of lionfish removals to mitigate reef fish community shifts on northern Gulf of Mexico artificial reefs.
Substantial declines in reef fishes were observed at northern Gulf of Mexico artificial reef sites between 2009-2010 and 2011-2012, a period that bracketed the appearance of invasive lionfish in this ecosystem. Small demersal reef fishes, the predominant prey of lionfish in other systems, displayed the greatest declines. However, a confounding factor during this time was the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill (DWH) in summer 2010. In some areas, targeted lionfish removals have been demonstrated to mitigate negative effects on native fishes. Therefore, we conducted a 2 yr experiment to examine the effectiveness and ecological benefits of targeted lionfish removals at artificial reefs (n=27) off northwest Florida, USA, where lionfish densities reached the highest recorded in the western Atlantic by 2013. All lionfish were removed via spearfishing from 17 reefs in December 2013, 9 of which were periodically re-cleared of lionfish through May 2015. Remaining sites served as uncleared controls. Both juvenile and adult lionfish quickly recruited to cleared reefs, with lionfish reaching pre-clearance densities in <1 yr on reefs cleared only once. Removal treatment significantly affected reef fish community structure at experimental reefs, but removal effort was insufficient to achieve substantial gains for most taxa, and declines in several taxa were observed throughout, regardless of treatment. It is unclear whether chronic effects of the DWH or regionally high lionfish densities were more important factors in explaining trends observed in reef fish communities, but small-scale targeted lionfish removal efforts had few positive impacts overall on native reef fish communities in this study.