Florida starts planning to attack invasive lionfish

Jason Vogan holds up two lionfish caught during diving derby held last summer in Fort Lauderdale.
Jason Vogan holds up two lionfish caught during diving derby held last summer in Fort Lauderdale.
Susan Cocking / Miami Herald Staff

The state of Florida has declared war on lionfish — a pernicious invader from the Indo-Pacific — and is recruiting troops both domestic and foreign to join the fight.

That was the tone of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Lionfish Summit held Tuesday through Thursday — a meeting of about 100 divers, resources managers, scientists and conservationists eagerly forming battle plans to attack the enemy.

“This is really a war,” said RJ de Pedro Muñoz, operations director of Proyecto Pterois (Lionfish Project) in Puerto Rico. “We need to know what is our enemy doing. Where are the troops?”

By all accounts, lionfish is a formidable foe, presenting daunting challenges to combatants on the front lines.

Since the first Florida sighting of what was probably an abandoned aquarium pet in Dania Beach in 1985, the candy-striped predators with toxin-tipped fins have spread as far as the northern Gulf of Mexico, mid- and south Atlantic, and throughout the Caribbean and Bahamas. Found in depths ranging from a few inches in mangrove estuaries such as the Loxahatchee River to 1,000 feet in the Bahamas, lionfish eat pretty much any fish they can swallow, decimating native reef fish populations in some areas. The largest one documented so far in Florida measured about 18½ inches.

Lionfish diving derbies and regular clean-outs by volunteer divers and resource managers have knocked down their numbers on some natural and artificial reefs. But the hardy invaders bounce right back, owing to females that can spawn every two to four days, spewing as many as 2 million eggs per year into marine ecosystems.

“Eradication is off the table,” University of South Florida researcher Mark Albins told the summit. “The most reasonable thing you can do is conduct focused, intensive removals in local areas.”

FWC moderators encouraged the summit’s attendees to brainstorm potential management measures, control strategies, research topics, and outreach and education programs to reduce lionfish numbers and curb their impact on native fish species and coral reefs.

At Biscayne National Park, scientists are doing a study on how often they need to conduct culling dives at several artificial and natural reefs to keep them lionfish-free. They are also experimenting with a trap developed by a resort operator in Bimini that is designed specifically to catch lionfish.

Captain Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association, said several of his members have created a commercial market for lionfish they catch in their lobster traps, selling hundreds of pounds per week to restaurants from Florida to New York. Kelly and other commercial fishing industry representatives urged the FWC to fast-track a directed trap fishery for lionfish.

Candy Hansard, vice president of the Emerald Coast Reef Association in the Panhandle, proposed the state reward spearfishers who harvest large numbers of lionfish with an exemption allowing them to take desirable species such as snapper and grouper over the bag limit or out of season. Other divers suggested granting spearfishers exemptions to use rebreathers, and to hunt around bridges, piers and jetties.

Just about everyone at the summit agreed that lionfish, which taste a lot like hogfish — a delectable native reef species — should be promoted heavily throughout Florida and beyond as a desirable and nutritious dinner entrée. Several suggested concerted public information campaigns to encourage consumers to try them and divers and snorkelers to harvest them.

On the summit’s final day, participants chose their preferred priorities for lionfish control strategies.

Among the top vote-getters: Florida should develop a formal lionfish management plan and lead a cooperative task force with other state, federal and Caribbean agencies for a wider, regional strategy; a directed trap fishery should be implemented; and further research into the spread of lionfish in estuaries must be conducted.

“It will not end here,” Dan Ellinor of the FWC’s marine fisheries division said at the session’s conclusion. “I want to make things happen. We’ve heard what we need to do, seen what we need to do, and now it’s time to do it.”

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