Lionfish are in Palm Beach County waters to stay, divers and scientists say


By Willie Howard
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Updated: 5:35 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012

JUPITER —

Nonnative lionfish that invaded Palm Beach County waters about 15 months ago
have become well-established in a variety of water depths, meaning the
beautiful Pacific Ocean fish with venomous spines and few natural predators
probably is here to stay, experts say.

“Within the bounds of current knowledge of the invasion, lionfish
eradication is not likely,” said Lad Akins, director of special
projects for the Key Largo-based nonprofit Reef Environmental Education
Foundation, or REEF. It tracks the spread of lionfish and organizes
harvesting competitions to help control their numbers.

The good news: Divers have been able to control the spread of lionfish in
specific areas, such as protected reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine
Sanctuary, Akins said.

Florida International University researchers found lionfish in the Loxahatchee
River in August 2010, documenting the fish’s first infestation in an East
Coast estuary. They found 211 lionfish in the Loxahatchee between August
2010 and April 2011.

Lionfish have since been found around dock pilings and other structure in the
Loxahatchee as far as 3.5 miles upstream of the Jupiter Inlet, said Bud
Howard, director of water resources for the Loxahatchee River District.

“Given the life history of this fish, I agree it is unlikely lionfish can
be eradicated,” Howard said. “With increasing numbers of fish on
the deeper reefs, there simply isn’t enough spear fishing pressure on those
fish.”

Dive boat captain Randy Jordan of Emerald Charters recently found a World War
II-era airplane in 185 feet of water off the Jupiter Inlet that was “crawling
with big lionfish.”

Jordan, who developed the Lion Tamer pole spear for divers to use in
harvesting lionfish, said he and his dive clients have been killing lionfish
since they showed up in the ocean off the Jupiter Inlet in September 2010.

But their numbers don’t seem to be shrinking, based on observations by divers.

“I have been killing lionfish for more than a year now, and there are
still as many as when I started,” Jordan said. “They are bigger in
average size and there are more per group.”

Farther south, divers are still finding lionfish in 45 to 100 feet off the
Boynton Inlet, said Craig Smart, captain of the Starfish Enterprise dive
boat.

Lionfish eat juvenile native fish as well as the shrimp and crabs that feed
them. Although no studies have documented lionfish damage to native fish in
the Loxahatchee River, it’s likely the voracious lionfish could put a dent
in native fish populations, Howard said.

“It seems logical that a predator that feeds as aggressively as lionfish
do, if left unchecked, is likely to influence fish communities,” Howard
said. “This is particularly concerning in an estuary that serves as
important nursery grounds for so many marine fishes.”

Divers removed 706 of the invasive fish from Palm Beach County waters during a
lionfish derby held in August . The lionfish-harvesting competition,
organized by REEF, included free samples of lionfish cooked by a chef at
Sailfish Marina.

REEF and its partners are planning nine lionfish derbies during 2012.
Schedules will be posted at www.reef.org/lionfish.

Divers who pursue lionfish are encouraged to wear thick, puncture-resistant
gloves to avoid painful stings from the fish’s spines.

Many divers clip the fish’s spines with scissors before removing lionfish from
the tips of spears. Anglers who catch lionfish are encouraged to hold them
over a bucket or a cooler and cut the line.

Boaters and others who find lionfish in the Loxahatchee River are encouraged
to report their sightings to the river district at www.loxahatcheeriver.org/lionfish.php.

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