Effects of the invasive Pacific red lionfish Pterois volitans on native Atlantic coral-reef fish communities Public Deposited

http://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/concern/graduate_thesis_or_dissertations/6395w984d

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  • Predatory lionfishes (Pterois volitans and P. miles) were introduced to Florida waters during the mid to late 1980s, and eventually established self-sustaining breeding populations in the tropical western Atlantic. These invasive species are now widespread along the southeastern seaboard of the United States, across the Caribbean Sea, and in the Gulf of Mexico. In these regions, lionfish reach larger maximum sizes and higher abundances than they do in their native Pacific, suggesting that they have undergone ecological release. Invaded marine communities have thus far provided little if any biotic resistance. Lionfish are generalist predators with high consumption rates, inhabit a broad range of habitats, are defended from predation by venomous spines, and are capable of long-range larval dispersal. It is possible that lionfish have direct effects on native communities, through consumption of native fishes and competition with native predators, as well as indirect effects, such as overconsumption of herbivorous fishes that prevent seaweeds from outcompeting reef-building corals. There is also serious concern that invasive lionfish could act additively, or even synergistically, with existing stressors of coral-reef systems, such as overfishing and ocean warming, resulting in substantial negative consequences for native ecosystems and economically valuable fisheries. The primary goal of this dissertation was to conduct a set of controlled, replicated field experiments to rigorously examine and measure the effects of lionfish on native reef-fish communities across a range of spatial and temporal scales. In the first experiment (Chapter 2), the net recruitment of native fishes to twenty small patch reefs was compared in the presence (n = 10) and absence (n = 10) of lionfish. This study demonstrated that lionfish reduced net recruitment, or change in abundance of small native fishes, by an average (± SEM) of 78.9 ± 32.2 % over 5 weeks, affecting 23 of 38 species recruiting to reefs in both treatments. In a second experiment (Chapter 4), I examined the effects of lionfish on patch-reef communities of small native fishes relative to, and in combination with, those of a similarly sized native predator, the coney grouper (Cephalopholis fulva). Four different predator treatments were established by transplanting predators (n = 5 reefs each). Treatments included a single small invasive lionfish, a single small native grouper, a grouper and a lionfish together, and predator-free controls. Compared to controls, invasive lionfish caused reductions (mean ± SEM) in abundance (93.7 ± 17.8 %) and species richness (4.6 ± 1.6 species) of small native fishes. The negative effect of lionfish on abundance was 2.6 ± 0.5 times stronger than that of the native grouper. The greatest negative effects on abundance, species richness, evenness, and diversity of native fishes occurred when both lionfish and native grouper were present. Additionally, lionfish grew more than six times faster in both length and mass than did native grouper. A third experiment (Chapter 6) assessed the effects of lionfish on native reef-fish communities at spatial and temporal scales directly relevant to management and conservation efforts. Subsequent to baseline surveys, high- and low-density lionfish treatments were established on 10 large (1400 to 4000 m²) isolated coral reefs. After initiation of treatments, quarterly surveys of the native reef-fish communities were conducted for approximately 14 months. Lionfish caused significant reductions (mean ± SEM) in density (up to 3.22 ± 0.95 fish m⁻²), biomass (3.26 ± 1.10 g m⁻²), and species richness (4.92 ± 2.09 species) of small (<10 cm TL) native fishes. However, these negative effects on prey-sized fishes had not yet translated into declines in larger size classes during the first 14 months of this experiment. In addition to field experiments, this dissertation describes field and aquarium observations of a previously undocumented piscivorous behavior by invasive lionfish - blowing jets of water at prey fish - which may confer a high degree of predation efficiency, thus contributing to the dramatic success of the invasion (Chapter 5). Also provided is a review of the current state of knowledge about the lionfish invasion, with speculation on the long-term effects of the invasion on coral-reef communities, and a brief discussion of potential mitigation measures (Chapter 3). In sum, this research demonstrated that invasive lionfish have substantial negative effects on native communities of coral-reef fishes. In all cases, numerical reductions in small (prey-sized) native fishes caused by lionfish were substantial. Additionally, lionfish caused considerable reductions in native reef-fish species richness (via predation on rare species). These findings indicate that the lionfish invasion may have long-term, broad-scale impacts on the structure and function of coral-reef communities as a whole, potentially reducing the resilience of these systems to a myriad of existing stressors as well as their capacity to provide valuable ecosystem goods and services to humans.
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