NSU professor angling for invasive lionfish off South Florida coasts

A close-up of a lionfish weighing more than 1 pound caught by Nova Southeastern University Professor Dave Kerstetter on hook and line off Port Everglades.
A close-up of a lionfish weighing more than 1 pound caught by Nova Southeastern University Professor Dave Kerstetter on hook and line off Port Everglades. Miami Herald Staff

Nova Southeastern University professor Dave Kerstetter lowered his fishing line nearly 185 feet deep to a small wreck off Port Everglades last week, using a ‘chicken rig’ baited with two live shrimp on a 20-pound conventional rod. Within a few minutes, he felt a tug, began reeling and eventually brought up two lionfish.

“They don’t strike very hard or fight very hard,” the fisheries scientist said nonchalantly as he carefully put the exotic fish with venom-tipped spines in the boat’s aft cooler.

Kerstetter re-baited his rig with two more live shrimp, and graduate student Joe Hornbeck followed suit. Between them, they caught three more for a total of five in only about 11/2 hours of fishing. The largest weighed 1 pound 2 ounces.

“There’s a hell of a lot of lionfish down there for us to get five,” said retired marine fisheries scientist Kevin Muench of Fort Lauderdale, owner and skipper of the boat.

The researchers — along with University of Miami professor Arthur Mariano and part-time charter captain Doyle Williams — probably could have caught quite a few more if they hadn’t run out of live shrimp for bait. The lionfish refused to bite chunks of dead squid, blue runner and blue crab that the anglers/researchers offered them. Still, the party might have set an unofficial record for most lionfish caught on hook and line in a single day.

The expedition “proves you can catch lionfish on hook and line by explicitly targeting them,” Kerstetter said.

Encouraging recreational anglers to catch and consume the peppermint-striped invaders from the Indo-Pacific is an important factor in protecting marine ecosystems, ecologists say. Lionfish — first spotted off Dania Beach in 1985 and believed to be an abandoned aquarium pet — have spread throughout the Atlantic, Gulf and Caribbean over the past 15 years.

They are blamed for decimating native tropical fish populations on some reefs and have been found thriving in waters as shallow as a few inches to over 1,000 feet deep.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and NOAA Fisheries actively encourage anglers and divers to take out lionfish wherever they find them. There are no lionfish regulations in Florida waters, and a fishing license is not needed to harvest them.

Until recently, only recreational divers served on the front lines attacking lionfish. They have taken thousands using spearguns, pole spears, Hawaiian slings and hand nets on leisure dives and in derbies organized by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) and other organizations.

But over the past few years, commercial fishers in the Keys have been harvesting increasing numbers of lionfish from their lobster and stone crab traps, creating markets for the species’ delicate, hogfish-like flavor in Florida and abroad. They are pushing the state to allow a directed trap fishery for the exotics.

Meanwhile, lionfish populations have grown virtually unchecked on some reefs and shipwrecks too deep for recreational divers and most trap gear. That’s what gave Kerstetter and colleagues the idea to go after them with rod and reel.

“It’s good recreational divers are taking them out shallow,” Kerstetter said. “If we can find a way to target them deep, then we’ll all be better off.”

Last week’s expedition was abetted by Muench’s new boat, a 36-foot Albemarle Express cruiser with twin diesels equipped with the Volvo Penta IPS system.

The new dynamic positioning system combines the functions of a joystick, GPS and pods on the engines to hold the vessel’s position, compensating for wind and current.

So, instead of drifting across the wreck, Kerstetter and his fellow anglers could fish it straight down from a stationary position, and Kerstetter only had to use three ounces of weight to hit the bottom.

While most South Florida anglers don’t target lionfish, several have caught them anyway —most notably captain Mike Murias, holder of the first IGFA all-tackle lionfish world record.

Murias caught his 1-pound, 10-ounce fish by dropping a live pilchard down 200 feet deep off Miami in September 2013. But that record probably won’t stand for long if other recreational fishers get busy; divers already have harvested specimens heavier than two pounds.

Anglers and divers who harvest lionfish are encouraged to report their catches on the FWC’s upgraded, interactive lionfish app, which can be downloaded from the Apple Store or Google Play.

Meanwhile, Kerstetter and his colleagues took their catch back to the university’s oceanographic center on Dania Beach for study. But that’s not all they planned to do with their lab specimens.

Said Kerstetter: “We’ll eat some of them, sure.”

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