Testing the efficacy of lionfish traps in the northern Gulf of Mexico
Spearfishing is currently the primary approach for removing invasive lionfish (Pterois volitans/miles) to mitigate their impacts on western Atlantic marine ecosystems, but a substantial portion of lionfish spawning biomass is beyond the depth limits of SCUBA divers. Innovative technologies may offer a means to target deepwater populations and allow for the development of a lionfish trap fishery, but the removal efficiency and potential environmental impacts of lionfish traps have not been evaluated. We tested a collapsible, non-containment trap (the ‘Gittings trap’) near artificial reefs in the northern Gulf of Mexico. A total of 327 lionfish and 28 native fish (four were species protected with regulations) recruited (i.e., were observed within the trap footprint at the time of retrieval) to traps during 82 trap sets, catching 144 lionfish and 29 native fish (one more than recruited, indicating detection error). Lionfish recruitment was highest for single (versus paired) traps deployed <15 m from reefs with a 1-day soak time, for which mean lionfish and native fish recruitment per trap were approximately 5 and 0.1, respectively. Lionfish from traps were an average of 19 mm or 62 grams larger than those caught spearfishing. Community impacts from Gittings traps appeared minimal given that recruitment rates were >10X higher for lionfish than native fishes and that traps did not move on the bottom during two major storm events, although further testing will be necessary to test trap movement with surface floats. Additional research should also focus on design and operational modifications to improve Gittings trap deployment success (68% successfully opened on the seabed) and reduce lionfish escapement (56% escaped from traps upon retrieval). While removal efficiency for lionfish demonstrated by traps (12–24%) was far below that of spearfishing, Gittings traps appear suitable for future development and testing on deepwater natural reefs, which constitute >90% of the region’s reef habitat.