Lionfish in the US Virgin Islands

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Photo credit Holden Harris

Is it possible to create a viable market for invasive lionfish in the US Virgin Islands?

Project Summary:

Lionfish are an invasive species that are causing significant harm to reefs and reef fish in the Atlantic and Caribbean.  The goal of this project is to assess the viability of a commercial lionfish fishery in the U.S. Virgin Islands. This collaborate effort with harvesters and potential markets will focus on the harvest through consumption chain, not the biological dynamics and ecosystem interactions). By integrating harvest information from fishers, spatial information on ciguatera “hot spots” (locations that harbor naturally-occurring toxins that cause this food borne illness), and market preference information, we can develop information to assess whether a commercial fishery is viable and ways that it can be supported.

During this research project, we worked collaboratively with the fishing communities of the US Virgin Islands to understand their knowledge of lionfish, potential interest in catching and selling lionfish, price required to harvest lionfish, and the barriers to market creation.  We also surveyed local consumers, tourists, and restaurants about their knowledge of lionfish, interest in purchasing lionfish, the price they were willing to pay for lionfish, and potential barriers to consumption.

Our findings show that among consumers interested in purchasing lionfish, the willingness to pay for lionfish is higher than that required for fishers to harvest.  However, barriers to creating a market remain.   Education regarding lionfish and the benefits of consuming lionfish are important to creating a larger market for this species.

Further details about lionfish and lionfish consumption are available in educational outreach materials provided below.

Research Publications

An Assessment of the Viability of a Commercial Lionfish Fishery in the US Virgin Islands. (2022). Tracy Yandle, Jennifer Sweeney Tookes, Paulita Bennett-Martin, Sherry Larkin, and Michael Page. Marine Policy.

ABSTRACT:  The presence of invasive lionfish in the U.S. Virgin Islands and the difficulties experienced by commercial fishers and concerned stakeholders presents an oddly complementary set of dilemmas. Local stakeholders have difficulties implementing a financially sustainable means of reducing the lionfish population. Meanwhile, commercial fishers are frustrated by the decline in traditional fisheries. In many cases, this decline is in part accelerated by the presence of lionfish outcompeting the native species for the same prey. In other words, the successful development of a market for lionfish could solve several problems including: providing an additional fishing target for commercial fishers, increasing the diversity and amount of fresh fish landed and consumed locally, providing a stable income stream to supplement commercial fishing related businesses (i.e., fishing/dive suppliers, restaurants, etc.), and reduce pressure on wild stocks and the coral reefs (i.e., improve and protect the diversity and resilience of the ecosystem). This study examines the barriers and opportunities in developing a lionfish market for local consumption in the USVI. 

Using Markets to Control Invasive Species: Lionfish in the US Virgin Islands (2020). Skyler Simnitt, Lisa House, and Sherry L. Larkin, Jennifer Sweeney Tookes, and Tracy Yandle. Marine Resource Economics 35(4).

ABSTRACT: Invasive lionfish are affecting reef ecosystems along the Gulf Coast and Caribbean. By establishing commercial fisheries and harvesting lionfish in mass, it may be possible to reduce their ecological footprint in the region. Nonetheless, there has been little research assessing the viability of a consumer market for lionfish meat. Using data collected in the US Virgin Islands (USVI), this study examines individuals’ willingness to participate in a hypothetical market for lionfish meat and their potential consumption levels. Consumer willingness to pay (WTP) for lionfish meat is also estimated. Findings suggest that individuals’ market participation and consumption levels are correlated with concerns for food safety and the environment, and consumer WTP is compatible with dockside prices of other species of reef fish. These findings suggest that a latent demand structure for lionfish meat may already exist in the USVI and that the prospect of a commercial fishery is worth additional exploration.

US Virgin Islands Fishing Community Resilience: Informing a Research Agenda (2020). Tracy Yandle, Jennifer Sweeney Tookes, and Cynthia Grace-McCaskey. Coastal Management 48(5).

ABSTRACT: For fishers throughout the Caribbean, major storm events such as hurricanes are a significant component of their life experiences. Over the past few decades, fishers in the US Virgin Islands (USVI) frequently experienced major storms and their aftermath, including Hurricanes Hugo (1989), Marilyn (1995), and Irma and Maria (2017). Using the resilience literature as our theoretical lens, we provide historical context and analyze current preliminary data on fishers’ perspectives to develop a better understanding of fishers’ and institutional responses to storms. We examine individual experiences and interactions with the institutions engaged in direct storm relief and post-storm fishery management. Preliminary analysis of these fishers’ perspectives is used to inform recommendations for a future research agenda by identifying the variables most prominent in both the resilience literature and fishers’ experiences.

In related research…

In the Wake of Two Storms: An Impact Assessment of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on the St. Croix and St. Thomas Fisheries, USVI. (2020). Brent Stoffle, Amanda Stoltz, Scott Crosson, and Jennifer Sweeney Tookes. The Applied Anthropologist (40)2. 

ABSTRACT : Hurricanes are common in the United States Virgin Islands (USVI). For generations, the USVI fishermen and residents have adapted to hurricane impacts and grown accustomed to the process of rebuilding. In September of 2017, however, hurricanes Irma and Maria passed over the islands leaving an unprecedented massive destruction of property and disruption of services. Losses included boats, homes, power, and basic infrastructure access. The economic impacts included a consequential loss of tourism and tourism-related infra-structure. Fishermen experienced all of these impacts.  This NOAA sponsored research focuses on the impact of these two hurricanes on the St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John fishermen and residents. It examines how these people adapted and recovered. More than 165 interviews were conducted in July of 2019. Residents and fishermen described how they rebuilt and started anew, sharing a story of resiliency, struggle, and a love for the sea and family. An issue discovered in this research effort was the relationship between local use of external assistance programs in comparison to their own methods of recovery. 


Fact Sheet for Policy Makers

Handbook to the Invasive Lionfish: U.S. Virgin Islands

Lionfish Handling and Treatment FINAL 6.1.2017

Lionfish: Is It Safe to Eat?

Lionfish Information for Consumers

PowerPoint presentation on Lionfish in the USVI to the Caribbean Fishery Management Council – August 29, 2018

May 2016 St. Croix Lionfish Field Course (Emory University)

Project Team

This project was a collaborative effort:


In conducting this project, we are grateful for the support we received. We would like to thank:

  • Research Participants in St. Croix and St. Thomas
  • Graduate Student: Paulita Bennet-Martin, Holden Harris, Natalie Mioulis, Katherine Groenevelt, Skyer Simnett, Tyler Breen
  • Undergraduate Students: Duncan Watson, Han Yang, Megan Withers, Jakob Perryman, Molly O’Neil, Kaetlyn Lee, Jeff Kraprayoon, Paige Crowl, Jason Boss
  • USVI Department of Natural Resources, Caribbean Fisheries Management Council
  • NOAA Saltonstall-Kennedy Grant # NA15SNMF4270347
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