A lion’s share of lionfish

Red Lionfish-Sebastian Inlet, FL

Red Lionfish-Sebastian Inlet, FL

There is an opportunity along the Atlantic coast and the Florida Keys where commercial fishermen could work with recreational anglers and divers to protect the environment and provide fish markets and restaurants with a delicious commodity.

I’m talking about lionfish, an invasive species from the Indian and southern Pacific oceans that was first documented off South Florida in the 1980s. Spread by ocean currents, lionfish now range from North Carolina to South America and are in the Gulf of Mexico and much of the Bahamas and the Caribbean. They’re also in Florida Bay, the Loxahatchee River and the Indian River Lagoon.

Scientists and members of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, a Key Largo-based organization, have determined that lionfish will likely never go away. On reefs where lionfish are plentiful, there has been a 95-percent decline in some native fish populations. Among their prey are baby yellowtail snapper, hogfish, shrimp and grouper. The best way to keep them from decimating native species is to kill as many lionfish as possible.

At its meeting in April, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission proposed several measures to keep the lionfish population from growing. They include prohibiting the importation of live lionfish, which are popular with aquarium owners, as well as the development of aquaculture of lionfish.

It is believed that an aquarium owner dumped lionfish into the ocean off South Florida, and that’s how the species got its start. Native species apparently don’t know what to make of the invaders, so they leave lionfish alone, which has allowed them to multiply and inhabit depths from a couple of feet to more than 1,000 feet. The fear of having lionfish raised for food is that those fish could get loose into the environment in the event of a hurricane or other disaster

The FWC also proposed allowing divers who use a rebreather, which recycles air and allows divers to remain in the water longer, to kill lionfish. And it proposed allowing divers to take part in lionfish derbies and similar events in areas where spearfishing is not allowed.

REEF holds lionfish derbies, with prizes going to the divers who kill the most and biggest lionfish. The organization also encourages divers to spear every lionfish they can. While most spearfishers target snappers, groupers and hogfish, many people consider lionfish to taste better than all those species, which is something I can vouch for. “Eat ’em to beat ’em” is the catchphrase promoted by REEF, which published a lionfish cookbook.

That’s where commercial fishermen come in. There is currently a small lionfish market in the Keys that consists of fish caught accidentally by lobster trappers, who sell most of those fish to local restaurants. If commercial fishermen caught tons of lionfish, which seldom weigh more than 2 pounds, they would have no problem selling every one of those fish and no one would be upset if they depleted the lionfish population, although that is highly unlikely. There are no precise figures on the lionfish population in Florida, but as John Hunt of the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute said, “I’ll give you a number: gazillions.”

But commercial fishermen could at least keep the lionfish population in check. Dave Kerstetter, who runs the fisheries research lab at Nova Southeastern University’s Oceanographic Center in Hollywood, Fla., noted that a colleague once said, “If you want to get rid of a species, you develop a fishery for it.”

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Steve Waters has been the outdoors writer for the Sun Sentinel since August of 1990. He got his start in journalism in Charleston, S.C., where he was a sportswriter and covered sailing. In his spare time, he fished for striped bass on the famed Santee-Cooper lakes with one of the high school football coaches he knew and later bought a bass boat so he could fish there on his own. When his sports editor at his next paper, The Tuscaloosa News, found out he had a boat, he asked him if he wanted to cover the outdoors in addition to covering the Crimson Tide. It wasn't long before Waters realized that writing about fishing was way more fun than covering Alabama football. He went on to cover the outdoors for two more newspapers and a TV station, as well as sports ranging from golf and baseball to NASCAR and the NHL, before writing full-time about fishing, boating, sailing, diving, hunting, powerboat racing and environmental issues for the Sun Sentinel.

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