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By Willie Howard
Lionfish are here to stay, it appears. So let’s make the most of this invasive delicacy.
Lionfish look like strange birds in the water, with their pronounced maroon- and-white stripes, tall dorsal fins and wing-like pectoral fins.
But what used to be a popular aquarium fish, native to the South Pacific and Indian oceans, is no joke in Florida waters, where the aggressive invader is stealing food from native fish and eating their young.
With few natural enemies in its new home, 18 venomous spines for protection and the ability to live in a wide range of water depths, the lionfish is taking over Florida’s reefs and wrecks while working its way into estuaries and rivers.
Marine scientists don’t believe lionfish can be eliminated, meaning they’re permanent residents of Florida waters that are crowding out native fish.
“Our best hope is to control populations on a local level and in high-priority areas, such as reefs,” said Meaghan Faletti, lionfish outreach coordinator for the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission and an avid lionfish hunter.
NOAA Fisheries biologist Tom Jackson compares lionfish to cockroaches- creatures we’ll spend a lot of time and money trying to control but probably will never eliminate.
Jackson, who kept a lionfish in his aquarium in college, said the federal government needs to be more selective about which animals it allows into the country so we don’t wind up with another exotic critter invasion.
“We import a lot of things we know nothing about,” Jackson said. “The lionfish is the classic example.”
Although nobody knows exactly how the lionfish got into Florida waters, scientists believe they were introduced by aquarium owners who no longer wanted them as pets.
The first confirmed sighting of a lionfish in Florida waters was in 1985 off Dania Beach. Another documented release came in 1992, when Hurricane Andrew knocked over an aquarium that released six lionfish into Biscayne Bay.
By 2000, lionfish had spread north to the Atlantic waters off Georgia and the Carolinas. By 2010, they were showing up in the northern Gulf of Mexico off Pensacola and Apalachicola.
How thick are lionfish around Florida? It depends on the location, but their numbers can be staggering.
Four divers participating in the Northeast Florida Lionfish Rodeo collected 1,399 lionfish, many of them small, off St.Augustine in a single day of spearing on Aug. 9, 2015.
The total haul for the event: 2,584 lionfish.
Teams of divers participating in Florida lionfish harvesting competitions, or derbies, typically remove 400 to 600 lionfish from the reefs, wrecks and other types of structure where they take up residence.
Lionfish are relatively easy to bag compared to other dinner-worthy residents of the reef.
“Because they don’t have any natural predators, they’re not afraid of anything, including us,” said Allie ElHage of Sarasota, an avid diver who developed the ZooKeeper lionfish containment tube.
Biologists are worried about the impacts of lionfish in part because they’re voracious predators that eat small native fish and steal their food.
Lionfish are relatively small, averaging 12 to 15 inches, but they can swallow fish half their body length. They herd prey with their large pectoral fins and blow water at other fish to get them to turn around before swallowing them.
Lionfish eat more than 70 marine fish and invertebrates, including yellowtail snapper, Nassau grouper, parrotfish, spiny lobster and banded coral shrimp.
A single lionfish can reduce the recruitment of small native fish by more than 90 percent in a few weeks, studies have shown. A study conducted at nine reef sites off New Providence, Bahamas, found that lionfish reduced biomass of 42 species of reef fish by 65 percent between 2008 and 2010.
“If it moves, they eat it,” said John Dickinson, a commercial lobster diver from Jupiter who has found small grouper, snapper, triggerfish, spiny lobster and tiny lionfish in their stomachs.
Dickinson, who adds to his lobster-diving income by harvesting lionfish and selling them to fish markets, said he noticed lionfish showing up on the reefs off northern Palm Beach County in 2005. By 2010, he said, they were well-established and eating lots of other fish.
One scrap of good news: Removing lionfish from reefs and wrecks can stabilize or reverse declines in native forage fish-even if all of the lionfish are not removed from an area, studies have shown.
“Where regular removals are taking place, lionfish populations are down,” said Lad Akins, who has participated in several lionfish studies as part of his work with the Key Largo-based Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF). “Where they aren’t, the population is still high and probably going up.”
Diver Keith Kovach said he sees relatively few lionfish near inlets when diving off Palm Beach County. His dive group searches for lionfish on wider sections of reef away from inlets to find spots that aren’t picked over.
“I suspect the lionfish population is being supported by colonies in deeper water, outside the safe recreational diving range,” Kovach said.
Lionfish live in a variety of water depths, from shallow estuaries and rivers out to depths of 1,000 feet.
The FWC encourages divers to help control lionfish numbers by taking as many of the reef invaders as possible (as long as they don’t damage reefs in the process). No fishing license is required to harvest lionfish with nets or pole spears. No size or bag limits apply. Occasionally, a lionfish is taken on hook and line, usually when bottom fishing with small hooks and live bait such as shrimp. The predatory lionfish do not seem to react to dead bait.
To promote lionfish-removal awareness, FWC commissioners tied lionfish into the 2015 mini lobster season by allowing divers to keep an extra spiny lobster each day-if they also bagged 10 lionfish and kept or photographed the lionfish as proof.
“Our hope is that once lobster divers realize how easy it is to remove lionfish, they will continue to do so throughout the regular lobster season and beyond,” FWC Commissioner Brian Yablonski said.
The FWC launched Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day in 2015 and plans to hold it annually on the first weekend after Mother’s Day. A two-day festival was planned for Pensacola on May 14-15, 2016, and satellite lionfish events are expected that weekend throughout the state.
The FWC’s Reef Ranger program encourages divers to adopt a section of reef and remove lionfish there at least twice a year. Its website (www.ReefRangers.com) includes an interactive map that shows which areas have been adopted so other divers don’t waste time searching the same spots for lionfish.
The call to remove lionfish from Florida’s reefs and wrecks has led many divers to learn how to spear, handle and cook a fish whose 18 venomous spines contain a neurotoxin that causes a painful sting and swelling.
Because their services are needed to defend Florida’s native fish populations from an aggressive invader, recreational divers are turning the call to action into a feel-good reason to get together, spear dinner and enjoy friendly competition at lionfish derbies.
“It amazes me how this terrible little fish that invaded our waters has brought together an amazing group of like-minded people,” said Grayson Shepard, an Apalachicola charter captain who enjoys diving for lionfish in the Gulf waters off the Panhandle. “Because of lionfish, I have made friends with folks who are going to be buddies of mine for the rest of my life. “
As more divers learn how to catch, handle, clean and cook lionfish, the “eat ’em to beat ’em” philosophy is taking root, turning an environmental disaster into an outdoor pursuit similar to diving for spiny lobster.
Lionfish aficionados compare the flaky white meat of the lionfish to hogfish and grouper. Restaurants are beginning to serve lionfish, and some fish markets are offering lionfish to customers who eat it baked, sautéed, fried whole, cut into chunks for ceviche and prepared many other ways.
Although lobster trappers become frustrated when lionfish invade their traps and reduce their lobster harvest, lionfish provide an extra source of income for commercial lobster divers.
How lionfish populations can be controlled in the future is the subject of much scientific brainstorming.
One possible tool: Lionfish- specific traps that could be used to help maintain pressure on lionfish populations, especially in water too deep for recreational divers.
Bob and Maria Hickerson of Vero Beach, who sell lionfish harvesting gear through their company, Team Frapper LLC, are developing the Frapper Trap-a “smart” trap that first attracts lionfish and then uses a pattern recognition program to decide whether to capture them.
The Hickersons’ goal is to produce a trap that will catch only lionfish, with zero bycatch of other fish.
The U.S. Geological Survey is providing scientific advice to the Hickersons for the lionfish trap, which is being tested at the Florida Institute of Technology’s Vero Beach Marine Laboratory. See www.thefrapper.com for details and sales.
FWC Lionfish Removal Incentives
In April, the FWC approved incentives designed to encourage divers to take more lionfish- including a special program for seven Panhandle counties where the FWC says dense concentrations of lionfish can be found.
For the second year, divers will be able to harvest an additional lobster each day during the two-day spiny lobster sport season (set for July 27-28) if they qualify by first documenting harvests of lionfish.
Divers can qualify for the extra mini-season lobsters by taking at least 50 lionfish between Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day (May 14) and the mini lobster season.
Lionfish harvests must be documented through an FWC approved process, such as a lionfish derby or an approved check-in station. The FWC is working to establish lionfish check-in stations. They will be listed at www.myfwc.com/lionfish.
The person who checks in the most lionfish between May 14 and Sept. 30 will be crowned Florida’s Lionfish King (or Queen), will receive a lifetime saltwater fishing license and will have their photo featured on the cover of the January 2017 saltwater regulations brochure.
A separate incentive program for the Panhandle applies to lionfish taken from the waters off Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf and Franklin counties.
For every 100 lionfish taken off the seven Panhandle counties between May 2016 and May 2017, the harvester will be eligible for a tag allowing them to take one legal-sized red grouper or a legal-sized cobia that is over the bag limit in state waters.
The FWC plans to issue 100 incentive tags for red grouper and 30 cobia tags.
The big carrot: Anyone who documents the harvest of 500 or more lionfish between May 2016 and May 2017 will be offered the opportunity to name an artificial reef.
“Innovative programs like these are a great way to generate public involvement and interest in controlling the lionfish population,” FWC Chairman Brian Yablonski said.
From Spear to Table
Most divers take lionfish with pole spears, but divers working in tandem can capture them with a pair of clear vinyl nets, puncture-resistant gloves and a thick-walled catch bag.
Shooting lionfish is relatively easy. A pole spear thrust by a short rubber cord should skewer them.
Grayson Shepard, an Apalachicola charter captain who enjoys spearing lionfish, uses a quartering shot near the back of the head to kill lionfish instantly. A swift kill keeps the lionfish from wiggling off the spear tip.
Many divers wear puncture-resistant gloves, such as those made from Dyneema fabric. But divers shouldn’t rely on gloves to protect them from a lionfish’s painful stings.
Most seasoned lionfish hunters have been hit with a venomous spine at least once, so divers should learn the locations of the lionfish’s spines and prepare for a sting. Soaking the wound in hot water for 30 minutes or longer is considered the best treatment.
When diving offshore, Shepard unscrews the flushing hose from his outboard, fills a bucket with hot engine water and uses it to treat lionfish stings.
“Put your hand in hot water and it’s instantaneous relief,” he said, “until you pull your hand out.”
Shepard usually grits his teeth and keeps diving if he gets stung by a lionfish underwater, but there have been exceptions-such as the time a lionfish spine went under the nail of his thumb and caused his arm to swell.
Kyle Brown, a divemaster with the Wet Pleasures dive shop in Lantana, uses blunt-tipped trauma scissors to trim the spines off lionfish after spearing them.
Brown said he doesn’t assume that a lionfish is dead because a spear has gone through it.“They’re really resilient,” he said. “I’ve shot some in the head that wiggled right off the spear and swam away.”
Lion Trackers’ Guide
Where to look: Natural reefs, wrecks and other types of underwater structure attract lionfish in a variety of depths.
Spears: A short pole spear or Hawaiian sling will kill lionfish. Barbed tips such as the three-pronged paralyzer are popular for harvesting lionfish.
Containers: ZooKeeper containment tubes are designed with a funnel entrance that allows speared lionfish to be removed and stored without touching them.
Handling: Hold the lionfish’s lower jaw with a thumb and forefinger, being careful to avoid spines.
Gloves: Puncture-resistant gloves are recommended for collecting and
Treating stings: Immerse the stung body part in hot water. Seek medical treatment if needed.
Regulations: No fishing license is needed to harvest lionfish with a net, pole spear, Hawaiian sling or other spearing device designed for lionfish. No size or bag limits apply. Saltwater fishing license is required to take with speargun or hook and line.
Reporting: Report lionfish at the U.S. Geological Survey’s reporting site (https://nas.er.usgs.gov/SightingReport.aspx).
Instructional videos: Videos showing divers spearing, netting, bagging and handling lionfish can be found at: www.reef.org/lionfishtutorials.
Lionfish Derbies: The FWC maintains a list of lionfish tournaments around the state. FS
First Published Florida Sportsman Magazine June 2016