Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission takes steps to target lionfish

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has adopted new rules making it easier for divers to harvest invasive lionfish, which pose a grave threat to Florida’s marine ecosystem.

Commissioners, meeting last week in Fort Myers, voted on several steps targeting lionfish:

• Importation of live lionfish is prohibited.

• Divers may harvest the venomous exotics using rebreathers, which prolong bottom time and depth.

• The executive director is authorized to issue permits for divers to spear lionfish in tournaments held in waters where the practice is otherwise prohibited.

The new rules will take effect Aug. 1.

The commission postponed a measure that would ban aquaculture of lionfish in Florida — pending input from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services — until its next meeting in September.

The new lionfish control measures emerged from a statewide summit held in October in Cocoa Beach. The infestation of the candy-striped predators from the Indo-Pacific has spread in Florida, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean to the point that some reef systems have been picked clean of native tropical species. Lionfish reproduce quickly and eat just about anything they can swallow. They have been found in waters ranging from estuaries a few inches deep to more than 1,000 feet deep in the open ocean.

The FWC has created a smart-phone app enabling users to report lionfish sightings and upload photographs.

Commercial fishers are pushing the agency to establish a lionfish trapping program to hasten their removal.

Said Jerry Sansom of the Organized Fishermen of Florida: “The sooner we find the gear, the better. This is going to be bigger than the pythons even thought of being, unfortunately.”

Some Keys commercial fishermen are catching lionfish incidentally in stone crab and lobster traps and are selling them to local restaurants. But with both crustacean harvest seasons currently closed, the lionfish harvest is inconsistent.

Meanwhile, scientists at Biscayne National Park are testing a prototype trap targeting lionfish that was developed by a resort owner in the Bahamas.

In other action, commissioners established a mandatory Gulf reef fish reporting program for recreational anglers that would take effect in April 2015.

Any recreational fisher planning on catching red or vermilion snapper; gag, red, or black grouper; amberjack; rudderfish; Almaco jack; or gray triggerfish in Gulf state waters would be required to register when they renew their saltwater fishing license. Anglers under 16 and charterboat customers would be exempt, but those 65 and older would have to sign up. The registry would be free, renewable annually, and would sunset in five years. The new requirement does not apply in the Keys.

The reason for the registry, commissioners said, is to improve data collection used in stock assessments of various reef fish species. Past and present methods of surveying recreational catch and effort are fundamentally flawed, they said. That results in poor data, which leads to shortened fishing seasons.

Said FWC executive director Nick Wiley: “This is going to be very good science, very solid information. I want you to have confidence this will be done right. We’re aware we’re asking people to do more. It’s an inconvenience, but it made us ever more cognizant that we have to do this right.”

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