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Friday, 22 April 2016 12:26

Last week, state wildlife officials began offering incentives for fishermen who remove invasive lionfish from Florida waters. Featured

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On Wednesday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) approved rewards for anyone who harvests a minimum of 50 Lionfish over the next twelve months. The FWC will also reward the person who kills the most lionfish at either tournaments or at lionfish checkpoints between May 14 –now called Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day - and Sept. 30. That person will be given a lifetime saltwater fishing license, be designated a lionfish Hall-of-Famer, allowed to take an extra spiny lobster and have a chance at being crowned the Lionfish King or Queen.

In addition, their photo will be featured on the cover of the FWC’s January 2017 saltwater regulations publication, and they will be individually recognized at the November 2016 Commission meeting.

Lee County Lion fish hunt 1

The FWC was motivated to expand its efforts to eradicate the Lionfish after the very recent Indian River fish kill. While tens of thousands of fish spanning over 30 species were found dead in the massive die-off, not a single Lionfish was found. It is a tough, voracious predator and is causing extensive damage to Florida’s native fish and shellfish populations. The scope of the problem is easy to understand since the Indian River Lagoon alone spans 156 miles and six counties.

It has only been a few short years since Lionfish invaded the Indian River watershed and nobody knows with any certainty when they arrived; but in 2010 two Florida Tech students spotted several inside Sebastian Inlet. Since then, they have been discovered inside Port Canaveral, in the lagoon itself; around seawalls, pilings and, in terms of an environmental threat; — in the mangroves. This is particularly significant since mangrove swamps are viewed as key nursery areas for grouper, snapper and other commercially valuable species. Also they continue to spread rapidly and are now found as far inland as Jupiter Inlet.

Lee County is also no stranger to the Indo-Pacific Lionfish. In July of 2011, the NewsPress published an article heralding their arrival in SW Florida.

Lionfish spawn and prefer to live around rocky reefs, so they are unlikely to threaten people on sandy beaches, but they are a huge threat to our local fishing community because they reduce already diminished populations of commercially taken species like grouper and snapper. Since the NewsPress first made the public aware of their presence they’ve continued to spread in the waters offshore from southwest Florida’s Lee County. Lee County officials first sighted the Lionfish about 160 miles off Marco Island and in the nearshore waters off Sarasota County. Local divers report they are now abundant in the artificial reefs and rocky formations of Lee County waters.

Lionfish are a serious threat. To illustrate this point the Washington Post published an article by a group of prominent scientists, including marine biologists who said that lionfish were “one of the top 15 threats to biodiversity worldwide.”

spearing lionfish 2 1

“They are taking over ecosystems from Trinidad and Tobago all the way up to Maine,” said Barton Seaver, a Blue Ocean Institute Fellow who was quoted by the Post.

Since they breed year round and are voracious predators, they rapidly take over any territory they invade to become the dominant fish species as has occurred on many reefs in the Bahamas and Caribbean.

Of grave concern to commercial fishermen is how they reduce desirable commercial species by reducing recruitment of juvenile snapper and grouper. It has been shown that a single lionfish can reduce the number of juvenile fish on a small patch reef by 80 percent in five weeks.

lionfish fillet 2

Fortunately Lionfish are good to eat. Those who have tried them say they have white, flaky meat that is not fishy. They have been compared to hogfish, long considered a local delicacy.

To bring increased awareness to lionfish edibility and put them on menus, a South West Florida organization -The Heights Center and Lee Reefs – began hosting an event called “Lionfish Fest – Feast on the Beast” – a lionfish Roundup and Chef Cook-off. With the expressed goal of helping to control local lionfish populations, Lee Reefs also held a competition to capture lionfish.

Due to their poisonous spines, spearing them is the preferred method of catching them and while this method is labor intensive our seafood industry is trying to work out a method to make them economically viable as a commercial species. The FWC has already waived the recreational license requirement for divers harvesting lionfish using certain gear, including spears and they also voted to exclude lionfish from the commercial and recreational bag limits.

In the current eradication initiative, all lionfish must be counted via an FWC-approved process, at a sponsored tournament or a check-in location. Locations will be listed online at MyFWC.com/Lionfish. The FWC wants the public to be aware that all other fishing rules still apply.

The FWC will establish as many lionfish check-in locations as feasible between now and May 14, and lionfish recorded at FWC-sponsored tournaments will automatically count. A list of tournaments and check-in locations will be available on MyFWC.com/Lionfish prior to May 14.

“Innovative programs like these are a great way to generate public involvement and interest in controlling the Lionfish population,” said FWC Chairman Brian Yablonski in a press release. “Those that remove lionfish not only get rewarded for their efforts, but they also get the experience of helping manage Florida’s fisheries."

The program will also help FWC “gather better data to improve the agency's approach to invasive species control,” he said.

The new initiative also includes a Panhandle Pilot Program to focus on Lionfish removal efforts off Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf and Franklin counties.

The Lionfish problem is far worse in those counties. To provide even greater incentive for participation, for every 100 lionfish harvested from that seven-county region between May 2016 and May 2017, the harvester will be become eligible for a tag that will allow them to take a legal-sized red grouper or a legal-sized cobia over the bag limit.

Accordingly, Florida will issue 100 red grouper and 30 cobia tags to successful participants in the pilot program. Also, any individual or group that harvests 500 or more Lionfish during this one-year period will be given the unique opportunity to name an artificial reef.

Learn about Lionfish, including the two-day FWC hosted Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day Festival (May 14-15) in Pensacola; at MyFWC.com/Lionfish or ReefRangers.com.

Staff report:

{Carl Conley, Christine Williams and the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute all contributed to this article.}



Read 6238 times Last modified on Friday, 22 April 2016 12:48

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