FWC Gives Update on Management of Lionfish

In early December, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), gave an update on the agency’s efforts to address nonnative fish and wildlife. Florida’s subtropical climate supports the establishment of nonnative species and allows some species to thrive once they have escaped or been introduced. When a nonnative species becomes a threat to native wildlife, human health and safety, or the economy, it is considered invasive.

“Invasive nonnative species are detrimental to our native wildlife and natural habitats and can pose a risk to human health and safety,” said Kristen Sommers, who leads the agency’s wildlife Impact Management Section.

Once a nonnative species becomes established, the amount of time and funds required to control the species increases. So in order to address the impacts of invasive species in the state the FWC has realigned its resources and prioritized species by their level of risk. The agency has focused its efforts on high priority invasive species such as lionfish.

The first lionfish was reported in South Florida waters in 1985. They were documented as established in the early 2000’s. They have been reported along the southeastern U.S. coast from Florida to North Carolina. Juvenile lionfish have also been collected off Long Island in New York. They are known to live from Rhode Island to Belize. What is troubling to scientists is how quickly they have colonized and spread over such a large area.

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.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has “concluded that invasive lionfish populations will continue to grow and cannot be eliminated using conventional methods.”

The introduction of lionfish into the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and Gulf of Mexico has reduced native fish biomass, increased algal growth as a result of herbivore removal by lionfish, created competition with native reef fish, and changed prey community structure.

The native range of the lionfish is the South Pacific and the Indian Oceans. The first lionfish was reported in South Florida waters in 1985. They were documented as established in the early 2000’s. They have been reported along the southeastern U.S. coast from Florida to North Carolina. Juvenile lionfish have also been collected off Long Island in New York. They are known to live from Rhode Island to Belize. What is troubling to scientists is how quickly they have colonized and spread over such a large area.

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 spawn year round and spread.

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 anticipate that consistent lionfish removal can reduce the negative impacts they have on Florida’s native wildlife and habitat as well as its reef community.

Florida has taken several steps to address the problem of lionfish, an invasive species that can cause the U.S. billions of dollars per year in damages, losses and measures to control them. The FWC in their updated report highlighted a multi-pronged approach this year that included lionfish fishing derbies, the Lionfish Removal & Awareness Day, and the initiation of the Reef Rangers Control Program.

Also in December the FWC acknowledged $25,000 in charitable donations. These funds will be used as cash prizes for a new and novel lionfish removal incentive program, rewarding harvesters who find and remove lionfish previously tagged by FWC staff.

The program will run May 19 through September 3, 2018, and will coincide with the annual summer-long Lionfish Challenge, which rewards recreational and commercial lionfish harvesters with prizes for submitting their lionfish removal efforts.

The goal of the 2018 tagged-lionfish removal program is to increase statewide removal efforts by giving divers a greater incentive to harvest lionfish more often while in search of the valuable tagged fish. Additional non-cash prizes are also available for those who harvest and submit a tagged lionfish. The program also will provide FWC with valuable data on the movement of lionfish.

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