News on the Lionfish

Interested in removing lionfish from Florida waters? The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission would like you to participate in the 2016 Lionfish Challenge or the Panhandle Pilot Program reward programs. Since the kick-off on May 14, 29 divers have entered 4,338 lionfish in the statewide Lionfish Challenge, which rewards those who remove 50 or more lionfish from waters across the state. Nineteen of those qualified for the Panhandle Pilot Program, which rewards divers for every 100 lionfish removed from Escambia through Franklin counties, where lionfish densities tend to be higher.

Remove 50 or more lionfish between Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day (May 14, 2016) and the end of September to enter the Lionfish Challenge. Prizes include a commemorative coin to mark membership; an event T-shirt;Lionfish Hall of Fame recognition on the MyFWC.com website; being entered in drawings to win prizes including fishing licenses, lionfish harvesting equipment, fuel cards and dive tank refills;if qualified before the relevant harvest season starts, the opportunity to take an additional spiny lobster per day during the 2016 mini-season (July 27-28); and, the person who “checks in” the most lionfish will be crowned Florida’s Lionfish King or Queen and will receive a lifetime saltwater fishing license, have his or her photograph featured on the cover of the FWC’s January 2017 Saltwater Regulations publication, be prominently featured on MyFWC.com’s Lionfish Hall of Fame, and be recognized at the November 2016 FWC Commission meeting.

The Panhandle Pilot Program focuses on lionfish removal efforts off Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf and Franklin counties. For every 100 lionfish checked in from this seven-county region between May 2016 and May 2017, the harvester will be eligible to receive a tag allowing them to take either a legal-sized red grouper or a legal-sized cobia that is over the bag limit from state waters. The state will issue up to a total of 100 red grouper and 30 cobia tags to successful participants in the pilot program. So far, 32 tags have been claimed. In addition, the first 10 persons or groups that check in 500 or more lionfish during this one-year period will be given the opportunity to name an artificial reef.

Lionfish have brown or maroon and white stripes. They have sharp spines that can deliver a venomous sting that can cause pain, sweating and respiratory distress. Adults grow up to a foot long and juveniles may be as small as one inch or less. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the lionfish has no known predators in the Atlantic which has contributed to their numbers as well as their ability to release 30,000 eggs per spawn.

These invaders can be found in our reefs, mangroves and seagrass meadows. They are the first exotic species to invade coral reefs. They are voracious eaters who consume more than 50 different species, including shrimp, grouper, and lobster. Their ravenous appetite has eaten or starved out local fish and disrupted commercial fishing. Some scientists believe that lionfish are so widespread that we may not be able to reverse their effect on the ecosystems of the Western Atlantic.

FWRI said that they hoped their efforts through education and outreach, would encourage extra effort from the public to remove lionfish from Florida waters. They hope that consistent lionfish removal can reduce the negative impacts they have on Florida’s native wildlife and habitat as well as its reef community.

Conservation thru eating seems to be at work with many Florida restaurants serving lionfish and beginning in June all 26 Whole Food Markets in Florida selling the fish. The invasive fish tastes like hogfish or snapper at a fraction of the price. The venomous spines are removed in store because only the spines contain the venom, not the meat. Lionfish fillets like any other fish or it can be baked whole.

The Tampa Bay Times reported that David Ventura, the Whole Food’s seafood coordinator in Florida, said the goal is to offer the fish year-round at the upscale grocer’s 26 Florida locations and create a demand to encourage the fishing industry to keep killing them by the thousands of pounds. Sales have been solid, Ventura said, and the company has “been blown away” by positive consumer feedback. Supply is the biggest issue when it comes to making lionfish an everyday item at the grocery store. There’s certainly enough lionfish in the sea to meet demand, but there aren’t that many people out there catching them.

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