Regal Damselfish Found Thriving In Southern Gulf Of Mexico

Researchers speculate the fish could have been introduced via discharged ballast water or via release by fishkeepers.

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The regal damselfish, native to the Red Sea and the Indo-Pacific, has become established in the southern Gulf of Mexico. Via Jack Randall/USGS
John Virata

The regal damselfish (Neopomacentrus cyanomos), a beautiful reef fish that is popular with fishkeepers  around the world, has been found in the southern Gulf of Mexico and is a potential invasive species, according to a research paper that documented their presence in the Gulf of Mexico.

“While you wouldn’t immediately think of the regal damsel as a dangerous fish, the fact is they are now in places where they are not native and they’re spreading, which makes them potentially an invasive species,” said Matthew Johnston, Ph.D., a marine researcher at Nova Southeastern University’s (NSU) Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography. “They may not be as impactful as say the lionfish has been, but these fish can also have a negative impact on their new habitats – it could throw the ecosystem out of natural balance.”

The fish, which is native to the Red Sea and Indo-Pacific, was found living on coral reefs near Veracruz, Mexico. The researchers found so many that they say that the fish is established on the reefs. The researchers are not yet ready to say the species is invasive because the invasion risk has not yet been assessed. The paper details a computer model that looks five years in the future and shows the potential range of the damselfish, including ideal water conditions for the fish as well as water currents in the region. The study also details direction that scientists should take if the species does become invasive and a threat to native fauna. The researchers speculate that the fish could have been introduced to the Gulf of Mexico either via ballast water that was discharged in the area, or via release by fishkeepers.

“The discovery of the regal damsel in Mexico highlights that we need to be very careful not to let our pets escape or release them into the wild,” Johnston said. “This fish is just one of at least 40 marine aquarium fish that have been documented in the tropical Atlantic. You don’t have to be an apex predator, have huge teeth or venomous spines to be a negative force on a reef – you just have to be where you’re really not supposed to be and compete for the reef’s limited resources.”

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Fish · Saltwater Fish