Cuba Marine Research & Conservation: Caribbean Lionfish in Cuba


The current high densities of invasive lionfish (Pterois volitans and Pterois miles) on Atlantic reefs pose a serious threat to the integrity of native ecosystems. While lionfish can be eaten by large predators such as groupers and sharks, such predators are rare throughout the Caribbean.  Relatively healthy and well-protected Cuban reefs, however, still boast abundant populations of large native apex predators, while lionfish removal programs in Cuba are currently in their infancy. These conditions in Cuban waters present an unprecedented opportunity to test the biotic resistance hypothesis, whereby native predators in well-enforced MPAs are capable of curbing the lionfish invasion.

The Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program (CMRC) tested the biotic resistance hypothesis to the Caribbean lionfish invasion in healthy, well protected Cuban reefs. CMRC staff teamed up with collaborators Dr. Mark Albins, a fishery biologist from Auburn University specializing in lionfish mitigation efforts, and Cuban partners and fishery experts Dr. Pedro Chevalier of the Acuario Nacional de Cuba, and Dr. Dorka Cobian, of the Parque Nacional Guanahacabibes, institutions under the Cuban Ministry of Science Technology and Environment (CITMA).

The invasive lionfish (Pterois volitans and Pterois miles) is now a hemispheric threat to the integrity of coral reefs and fisheries in the Western Atlantic (Figure 1). Scientists have suggested that the ongoing spread of the invasion may be controlled by native species (predators or competitors), providing biotic resistance to the invasion. Whether native predators are capable of competing with or consuming lionfish sufficiently or quickly enough to mitigate their negative effects is actively debated in scientific circles. Cuban coral reefs, particularly Cuba’s well-enforced marine protected areas, provide a unique case study. Most Caribbean reefs are not viable locations to test the biotic resistance hypothesis because abundant apex predators are no longer present (i.e., they have been systematically overfished). If they exist in sufficient numbers in well-enforced MPAs, those are often the same areas in which lionfish removal programs have been active for some time, and the confounding effect of human removal cannot be controlled for. In selected Cuban MPAs, large apex predators are abundant, and the removal of lionfish has either not yet started, or is in its infancy. The Jardines de la Reina MPA boasts the highest biomass of native predators in the Caribbean. The lionfish removal program here has only recently begun, and every lionfish removed has been recorded by reserve managers, and removal locations carefully documented.

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