Proposal to reward lionfish harvesting with bonus lobster to go before FWC board

Lad Akins from the Reef Environmental Education Foundation carefully grasps a football-sized lionfish. The Pacific invaders can destroy reef ecosystems if left unchecked.
Lad Akins from the Reef Environmental Education Foundation carefully grasps a football-sized lionfish. The Pacific invaders can destroy reef ecosystems if left unchecked. Student.societyforscience.org

Take 10 lionfish, get an extra lobster: That’s the basis of a statewide lobster miniseason experiment that will be floated to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission next week.

Under the outlines of the plan forwarded by FWC managers, divers and snorkelers in the water for the two-day lobster sport season in July would be allowed an extra lobster per day — providing they already caught 10 lionfish.

Lionfish have been declared a major threat to Florida’s marine environment. The Pacific species armored with venomous spines breeds rapidly and eats voraciously.

They can destroy complete reef ecosystems and apparently have no predators in the Atlantic Ocean capable of controlling their growth.

“We’re always looking for ways to get people involved in removing lionfish,” FWC spokeswoman Amanda Nalley said Tuesday. “The lobster sport season already is a time when a lot of people are in the water to harvest another species.”

Instead of the normal lobster limit of six per day in the Keys during miniseason, a diver with 10 lionfish to show law enforcement would be allowed to take a seventh lobster.

“This idea came to us from a stakeholder, and staff thought it was a good idea to present to the [FWC] board as a possibility and an opportunity,” Nalley said.

Lad Akins, a renowned lionfish-removal expert as special projects director for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation in Key Largo, has reservations.

“Lobster limits were set for good scientific reasons,” Akins said. “Taking lionfish is good, but that doesn’t mean we should be taking more lobster.

“REEF believes that people going out for miniseason should take their legal limit of lobster, then spend the rest of their day hunting lionfish.”

Added Atkins: “Nothing is better than a dinner of lobster and lionfish.”

The FWC board is scheduled to hear the lionfish-and-lobster proposal June 25 at its meeting at the Hyatt Regency-Sarasota resort.

If FWC commissioners approve the lionfish-bonus system as a test program, it would take effect for the July 29 and 30 miniseason this year.

The state estimates 59,000 divers go out for lobster miniseason’s two days in advance of the regular season starting Aug. 6. More than half of those miniseason divers head for the Keys, surveys indicate.

“The FWC is continually looking for additional innovative ways to urge marine resource users, especially divers, to harvest lionfish,” proposal authors Krista Shipley and Melissa Recks said in an advance presentation.

However, many divers do not submerge with the idea of harvesting lionfish or anything else. Lobster divers have a different agenda, but might be persuaded to use their harvesting skills to take up the lionfish-eradication cause, Nalley said.

Fisheries staff has spoken with marine law enforcement and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary about the proposal, Nalley said. “They’re on board and think it’s manageable,” she said.

But Atkins cautioned that “the logistics of enforcement could be very challenging.”

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