Grouper as a Natural Biocontrol of Invasive Lionfish
Peter J. Mumby
1,2*, Alastair R. Harborne1,2, Daniel R. Brumbaugh3,41
and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter, Devon, United Kingdom,
York, New York, United States of America,
Marine Spatial Ecology Lab, School of Biological Sciences, University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia, 2 Biosciences, Hatherly Laboratory, College of Life3 Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History, New4 Institute of Marine Sciences, University of California Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, California, United States of AmericaAbstract
of native fishes with a broad habitat distribution, lionfish are poised to cause an unprecedented disruption to coral reef
diversity and function. Controls of lionfish densities within its native range are poorly understood, but they have been
recorded in the stomachs of large-bodied Caribbean groupers. Whether grouper predation of lionfish is sufficient to act as a
biocontrol of the invasive species is unknown, but pest biocontrol by predatory fishes has been reported in other
ecosystems. Groupers were surveyed along a chain of Bahamian reefs, including one of the region’s most successful marine
reserves which supports the top one percentile of Caribbean grouper biomass. Lionfish biomass exhibited a 7-fold and nonlinear
reduction in relation to the biomass of grouper. While Caribbean grouper appear to be a biocontrol of invasive
lionfish, the overexploitation of their populations by fishers, means that their median biomass on Caribbean reefs is an order
of magnitude less than in our study. Thus, chronic overfishing will probably prevent natural biocontrol of lionfishes in the
Pterois volitans/miles) have invaded the majority of the Caribbean region within five years. As voracious predatorsCitation:
Mumby PJ, Harborne AR, Brumbaugh DR (2011) Grouper as a Natural Biocontrol of Invasive Lionfish. PLoS ONE 6(6): e21510. doi:10.1371/Editor:
Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, United States of AmericaReceived
April 14, 2011; Accepted May 30, 2011; Published June 23, 2011Copyright:
unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
2011 Mumby et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permitsFunding:
Fellowship (www.pewenvironment.org) to PJM and a NERC Fellowship (NE/F015704/1) to ARH. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and
analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
This project was funded by an ARC (http://www.arc.gov.au/) Laureate Fellowship, NERC (http://www.nerc.ac.uk/) grant, EU FORCE project, and PewCompeting Interests:
* E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.Introduction
Over the last five years, one of the world’s most ornate fishes,
the lionfish (
Caribbean, spanning an area exceeding 5,000 km
generally believed that
What makes the invasion of these species so important is their
voracious appetite for small fishes [3,4,5], combined with their
ability to invade multiple habitats, ranging from the outer margins
of reefs to sheltered mangrove lagoons [6,7]. Thus, small-bodied
and juvenile reef fish are now subjected to greatly elevated
predation and the usual strategies employed to avoid predation,
such as the usage of mangrove nurseries [8,9], may confer limited
benefit as lionfish occupy most habitats. The long-term consequences
of such predation on reef biodiversity and function are not
yet clear, but are a matter of grave concern.
The success of lionfish is partly attributable to its resistance to
predation, largely because of its elaborate portfolio of venomous
spines. In its native range of the Indo-Pacific, identification of
the predators of lionfish has proven elusive, although reports of
predation by the cornetfish,
 and the only confirmed indication of predation has been
the observation of lionfishes in the stomachs of two large-bodied
species of grouper,
Here, we ask whether grouper, one of the most heavily targeted
fisheries species in the world , could serve as a natural form
of biocontrol for invasive lionfishes. The use of predatory fishes
for controlling invasive species has been used in other
ecosystems , but has not previously been described for coral
While grouper may have the capacity to consume lionfish, this
does not necessarily imply that they act as a biocontrol. Effective
biocontrol would require that grouper predation exerted a
significant net impact on the density of their prey, which might
not be the case if predation rates are low and/or lionfish
recruitment rates high. To establish whether grouper represent a
natural form of biocontrol for lionfish, we took advantage of a
natural fishing experiment in the Bahamas. A 20 year ban on
fishing within the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park (ECLSP) has
enabled grouper populations to exceed those in fished areas .
Some five years after the invasion began, we ask whether these
increased densities of groupers are reducing lionfish densities and,
if so, consider whether this biocontrol mechanism is likely to be
feasible elsewhere in the Caribbean region.
Pterios volitans/miles), has invaded much of the2 . It isP. volitans, together with a sister species, P., escaped from aquaria in Florida within the last decade .Fistularia commersoni, have been madeP. miles . Fistularids are uncommon in the CaribbeanEpinephelus striatus and Myceteroperca tigris .Results and Discussion
A 20 year ban on fishing in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park
(ECLSP) has allowed predatory groupers to attain some of the
highest biomasses reported anywhere in the Caribbean. Taking
the region-wide dataset from the Atlantic Gulf Rapid Reef
Assessment Program , we show that the mean biomass of
grouper in the Park,
Caribbean sites (Fig. 1). Thus the ECLSP and it’s surrounding
areas provide an unusual opportunity to examine the potential of
groupers to act as a natural biocontrol of non-native lionfish.
,2000 g 100 m22, falls in the top 1% of allPLoS ONE | www.plosone.org 1 June 2011 | Volume 6 | Issue 6 | e21510
The biomass of lionfish was significantly negatively correlated
with the biomass of grouper, with predator biomass explaining
56% of the variance of prey biomass (linear regression p = 0.005,
Fig. 2, Table 1). Unlike large-bodied groupers (mean total length
55 cm, range 30–110 cm), other smaller predatory fishes such as
significant bearing on lionfish biomass (p =0.17, Table 1), which
might imply that large-bodied fish are the primary predators of
lionfish. The relationship of grouper on lionfish was strongly nonlinear
such that an 18-fold variation in predator biomass among
lionfish density (
lionfish biomass (Fig. 2). A 50% reduction in lionfish biomass was
achieved with a grouper biomass of 800 g 100 m
lionfish density to 30% its highest value required a further
doubling of grouper biomass to approximately 1516 g 100 m
spp., lutjanids, carangids and aulostomids had no,170–3000 g 100 m22) was related to a tenfold difference in,0.3–0.03 fish 100 m22) and 7-fold difference in22. Reducing22(Fig. 2). The mean body length of lionfish was 24.5 cm (SD 4.1,
range 15–34 cm).
Biocontrol is defined as the use of living organisms to suppress
the population density or impact of a specific pest organism,
making it less abundant or less damaging than it would otherwise
be . Thus, at high levels, grouper appear to be a natural
biocontrol of lionfish, and likely caused the 7-fold difference in
lionfish biomass within a 30 km stretch of reef. Although we have
no data on whether this biocontrol is driven by grouper predation
or competitive pressure, three lines of evidence suggest that
predation is the most likely mechanism. First, lionfish have been
found in grouper stomachs  so there is direct evidence
supporting the mechanism. Second, large-bodied species of
grouper, such as
food resources as lionfish. A study comparing predation by small
prey to lionfish [4,5],
grouper species targeted larger food items  such as fish
. Given that the large-bodied grouper in our study were mostly
adults and larger than those studied by Stallings , it seems even
more unlikely that the two groups compete for food. Third, studies
of interactions between adult grouper and smaller, reef mesopredators
have discovered predation-based behavioural responses
of the prey rather than evidence of direct competition .
There remains much to learn about the scope for biocontrol of
lionfish. Laboratory and field trials are needed to understand the
size-dependency of the predator-prey relationship and the role that
small-bodied grouper and other piscivores may play, particularly
in preying upon juvenile lionfish. We also observed that lionfish
appeared to remain closer to refugia at sites with high grouper
densities suggesting that grouper may both reduce lionfish
densities and reduce the predation rates of lionfish in the area,
as they do for functionally similar small-bodied grouper .
Given that lionfish were absent in 2006 and only began to appear
throughout the Exumas in 2007, our results suggest the ability of
groupers to constrain the invasion over a 3 year period. It is
feasible that the absolute density of lionfish may change as the
invasion continues and repeated monitoring will study any change
in the relationship with grouper biomass. Further, it is not clear
whether continued recruitment of lionfish in non-reefal habitats,
that lack large predatory grouper , might increase the future
settlement of lionfish on reefs and challenge the efficacy of
biocontrol in grouper habitats. Finally, it is unclear whether sharks
play an active role in lionfish predation. The entire Exuma Cays
possess relatively high densities of reef sharks, with at least one
individual encountered per hour at each site. However, while
sharks are unlikely to have contributed to the gradients of lionfish
density observed here – because they were found throughout the
Epinephelus striatus, are unlikely to share the sameE. striatus and a meso-predator that feeds on similarsizedCephalopholis fulva, found that the largebodiedFigure 1. Frequency distribution of the number of sites supporting the current range of grouper biomasses recorded in the
Grouper Deplete Invasive Lionfish
PLoS ONE | www.plosone.org 2 June 2011 | Volume 6 | Issue 6 | e21510
Data derived from the Atlantic Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment database. ECLSP = Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.study region and are protected from fishing throughout the
bahamas – it is possible that they depress the overall density of
lionfish in The Bahamas .
Although the impacts of the lionfish invasion on biodiversity and
ecosystem function are not yet clear, our study provides insights
into the feasibility of natural biocontrol. It is sobering that
overfishing of large-bodied grouper [21,22] has left the median
biomass at only 178 g 100 m
results suggest that such a low biomass, which is more than an
order of magnitude less than that in the ECLSP, would have only
a minor impact on lionfish biomass because it is barely detectable
using our regression relationship. Thus, while grouper appear to
have the capacity to serve as a natural biocontrol, this is only likely
to be feasible in protected marine reserves  or if fishing
practices change to allow the maintenance of large individuals in
the population. One potential option would be the usage of slot
fisheries, that target intermediate-sized fishes and leave the largest
individuals to maintain reproduction and ecosystem processes
. However, if the historical trend of poor management
continues  then direct capture and eradication may be the only
practicable form of lionfish control for much of the Caribbean.
Economic incentives, such as the development of a commercial
market for lionfish – which is beginning to happen in some parts of
the Caribbean – might help make direct interventions a costeffective
22 in the Caribbean (Figure 1). OurMaterials and Methods
In May 2010, 12 sites were selected along a stretch of reef
spanning 30 km of the Exuma Cays, central Bahamas (Table S1).
Five sites were located in the ECLSP and seven sites were located
in fished areas to the north of the Park. Eight of the sites had been
visited before the invasion  and were therefore revisited.
Additional sites were selected near mooring buoys that provided
lionfish were seen at any site in 2004 or 2006. In May 2007, a
survey of nine sites (six of the sites chosen in 2010, plus three to the
south of the Park) recorded the presence of lionfish both to the
north and south of the Park, though densities were too low for
effective fish censuses. Dive boats had not collected lionfish at dive
sites in the Exuma Cays for at least 2 years prior to surveys.
Indeed, the highest and lowest densities of lionfish were both
observed at dive sites that receive occasional visitation (once per
The same habitat (complex
15 m) was surveyed at each site. This is the preferred habitat of
adult large-bodied grouper . Previous studies along the Exuma
Cays found no systematic variation across reserve boundaries in
habitat complexity or predicted fish larval supply . Lionfish
and all large-bodied species of grouper (
Montastraea reef habitat at a suitable depth of 7–15 m. NoMontastraea forereef at a depth of 7–Epinephelus striatus,Mycteroperca tigris
subsequently ‘grouper’) were visually censused simultaneously
using eight replicate timed swims per site. Timed swims represent
a more appropriate and efficient technique for censusing relatively
, M. bonaci, M. venenosa, and M. interstitialis;Figure 2. Relationship between grouper biomass and lionfish density.
filled squares are sites within the Park. Errors bars represent standard error.
Open squares are sites outside the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park,Table 1.
the biomass of grouper (g 100 m
(g 100 m
Linear regression of lionfish biomass (g 100 m22) on22) and other predator fishes22).Predictor Coefficient Std. Dev. T p
Constant 224.34 45.41 4.94 0.001
Grouper biomass (log)
Other predator biomass 0.008 0.005 1.46 0.179
259.54 15.30 23.89 0.0042 = 0.56. Std. Dev. denotes standard deviation.Grouper Deplete Invasive Lionfish
PLoS ONE | www.plosone.org 3 June 2011 | Volume 6 | Issue 6 | e21510
rare and patchy species than more traditional transect approaches.
Each timed swim lasted 5 minutes, covered approximately
was taken to examine cryptic habitats and the count, size and
species of individuals was recorded. Additional predatory fishes in
the families Sphryaenidae, Serranidae, Lutjanidae, Aulostomidae,
and Muraenidae were sampled using eight 30
site (Muraenidae have been observed to consume a wounded
lionfish ). Given that biomass is a better proxy for trophic
impact than density, grouper data were converted to mass using
allometric scaling relationships with body length . Allometric
scaling relationships for lionfish were obtained elsewhere .
To assess patterns of grouper biomass around the Caribbean
and place the Exuma Cays data in context, we extracted data from
443 forereef sites in the Atlantic Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment
(AGRRA) database . Sites spanned 15 countries including the
British Virgin Islands, US Virgin Islands, Florida, Venezuela,
Puerto Rico, Panama, Bonaire, Curac¸ao, Mexico, Cayman
Islands, Cuba, Costa Rica, Belize, Jamaica and The Bahamas.
These data were collected using visual fish census along 30
transects. In order to compare grouper biomass from our Exumas
sites to the AGRRA data, we also measured grouper biomass
along nine 30
quantified the total fish community structure for non-cryptic
2, and was undertaken by the same surveyor (PJM). Care64 m transects per64 m64 m transects at nine of our sites in 2010 and five64 m transects in 2004. Surveys in 2007 and 2004 alsoSupporting Information
denotes whether the site was within the Exuma Cays Land and
Survey locations in the Exuma Cays. Reserve statusAcknowledgments
We thank Bruce Purdy and his crew for providing such excellent field
support. We also thank all the contributors to the AGRRA program for
creating such a valuable dataset.
Conceived and designed the experiments: PJM. Performed the experiments:
PJM ARH DRB. Analyzed the data: PJM. Contributed reagents/
materials/analysis tools: PJM. Wrote the paper: PJM ARH.
1. Schofield PJ (2009) Geographic extent and chronology of the invasion of nonnative
Western North Atlantic and Caribbean Sea. Aquat Invasions 4: 473–479.
2. Semmens BX, Buhle ER, Salomon AK, Pattengill-Semmens CV (2004) A
hotspot of non-native marine fishes: evidence for the aquarium trade as an
invasion pathway. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 266: 239–244.
3. Albins MA, Hixon MA (2008) Invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish
recruitment of Atlantic coral-reef fishes. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 367: 233–238.
4. Coˆte´ IM, Maljkovic´ A (2010) Predation rates of Indo-Pacific lionfish on
Bahamian coral reefs. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 404: 219–225.
5. Morris JA, Akins JL (2009) Feeding ecology of invasive lionfish (
the Bahamian archipelago. Environ Biol Fishes 86: 389–398.
6. Barbour AB, Montgomery ML, Adamson AA, Dı´az-Ferguson E, Silliman BR
(2010) Mangrove use by the invasive lionfish
7. Jud ZR, Layman CA, Lee JA, Arrington DA (2011) Recent invasion of a Florida
estuarine/riverine system by the lionfish,
8. Mumby PJ, Edwards AJ, Arias-Gonza´lez JE, Lindeman KC, Blackwell PG, et al.
(2004) Mangroves enhance the biomass of coral reef fish communities in the
Caribbean. Nature 427: 533–536.
9. Nagelkerken I, van der Velde G, Gorissen MW, Meijer GJ, van’t Hof T, et al.
(2000) Importance of mangroves, seagrass beds and the shallow coral reef as a
nursery for important coral reef fishes, using a visual census technique. Estuar
Coast Shelf Sci 51: 31–44.
10. Bernadsky G, Goulet D (1991) A natural predator of the lionfish
Copeia 1991: 230–231.
11. Humann P, Deloach N (2002) Reef fish identification. Jacksonville: New World
12. Maljkovic´ A, Van Leeuwen TE, Cove SN (2008) Predation on the invasive red
Coral Reefs 27: 501.
13. McClenachan L (2009) Documenting loss of large trophy fish from the Florida
Keys with historical photographs. Conserv Biol 23: 636–643.
14. Hein CL, Roth BM, Ives AR, Vander Zanden MJ (2006) Fish predation and
trapping for rusty crayfish (
Can J Fish Aquat Sci 63: 383–393.
15. Mumby PJ, Dahlgren CP, Harborne AR, Kappel CV, Micheli F, et al. (2006)
Fishing, trophic cascades, and the process of grazing on coral reefs. Science 311:
16. Kramer PA (2003) Synthesis of coral reef health indicators for the western
Atlantic: results of the AGRRA program (1997-2000). Atoll Res Bull 496: 1–57.
17. Eilenberg J, Hajek A, Lomer C (2001) Suggestions for unifying the terminology
in biological control. Biocontrol 46: 387–400.
18. Stallings CD (2009) Predator identity and recruitment of coral-reef fishes:
indirect effects of fishing. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 383: 251–259.
19. Eggleston DB, Grover JJ, Lipcius RN (1998) Ontogenetic diet shifts in Nassau
grouper: Trophic linkages and predatory impact. Bull Mar Sci 63: 111–126.
20. Stallings CD (2008) Indirect effects of an exploited predator on recruitment of
coral-reef fishes. Ecology 89: 2090–2095.
21. Sadovy Y (2005) Trouble on the reef: the imperative for managing vulnerable
and valuable fisheries. Fish Fish 6: 167–185.
22. Sadovy Y, Eklund AM (1999) Synopsis of biological information on
jewfish. US Department of Commerce, NOAA Technical Report NMFS 146
and FAO Fisheries Synopsis 157: 65.
23. Coleman FC, Koenig CC, Huntsman GR, Musick JA, Eklund AM, et al. (2000)
Long-lived reef fishes: The grouper-snapper complex. Fisheries 25: 14–21.
24. Steneck RS, Paris CB, Arnold SN, Ablan-Lagman MC, Alcala AC, et al. (2009)
Thinking and managing outside the box: coalescing connectivity networks to
build region-wide resilience in coral reef ecosystems. Coral Reefs 28: 367–378.
25. Sadovy Y, Domeier M (2005) Are aggregation-fisheries sustainable? Reef fish
fisheries as a case study. Coral Reefs 24: 254–262.
26. Mumby PJ, Harborne AR (2010) Marine reserves enhance the recovery of corals
on Caribbean reefs. PLoS One 5: e8657.
27. Sluka R, Chiappone M, Sullivan KM, Potts TA, Levy JM, et al. (1998) Density,
species and size distribution of groupers (Serranidae) in three habitats at Elbow
Reef, Florida Keys. Bull Mar Sci 62: 219–228.
28. Mumby PJ, Harborne AR, Williams J, Kappel CV, Brumbaugh DR, et al.
(2007) Trophic cascade facilitates coral recruitment in a marine reserve. Proc
Natl Acad Sci U S A 104: 8362–8367.
29. Bohnsack JA, Harper DE (1988) Length-weight relationships of selected marine
reef fishes from the southeastern United States and the Caribbean. NOAA
Technical Memorandum NMFS-SEFC-215.
30. Cerino C (2010) Bioenergetics and trophic impacts of invasive Indo-Pacific
lionfish: MSc thesis. Greenville: East Carolina University. 72 p.
Pterois volitans [Linneaus 1758] and P. miles [Bennett 1828]) in thePterois volitans reducePterois volitans) inPterois volitans. Mar Ecol Prog SerPterois volitans. Aquatic Biology in press.Pterois miles.Pterois volitans (Pisces: Scorpaenidae), by native groupers in the Bahamas.Orconectes rusticus) control: a whole-lake experiment.Epinephelus(Bloch 1972), the Nassau grouper and E. itajara (Lichtenstein, 1822), theGrouper Deplete Invasive Lionfish
PLoS ONE | www.plosone.org 4 June 2011 | Volume 6 | Issue 6 | e21510