Florida steps up attack on nonnative, venomous loinfish inavading state …

NAPLES, Fla. – Florida is stepping up its assault against nonnative lionfish spreading through the state’s coastal waters and putting marine ecosystems at risk.

Under rules unveiled Monday, recreational fishermen will not need a fishing license to catch the colorful venomous pests as long as they are spearfishing or using a hand-held net. A license still is required to catch lionfish with a hook and line, which is rarely done.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hopes the new strategy will recruit more divers to the fight to turn back the tide of marauding lionfish.

“They’re our best possible chance to control them,” said John Hunt, director of the Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute lab in the Florida Keys.

Divers have been on the front lines of the fight against lionfish from the start, sponsoring fishing contests and participating in lionfish derbies in the Florida Keys.

Lobster fishermen have taken to carrying specially designed spear guns into the water with them to fend off lionfish that increasingly occupy the same reefs as the lobsters.

“The more people going at them (the better),” said Kevin Sweeney, owner of Naples dive shop SCUBAdventures.

The state’s new strategy will not unleash spearfishers against lionfish in Collier County, where spearfishing has been prohibited since the 1950s. County voters enacted the ban to protect snook and it has been in force ever since. Catching lionfish with a net without a license is allowed.

Fishermen do not need a license to fish for lionfish with a pole spear, a bow-and-arrow-like device called a Hawaiian sling, a handheld net or any spearing device designed and marketed exclusively for lionfish, according to the new rule.

The Conservation Commission has put no limit on how many lionfish can be caught in a day. Commercial sale of lionfish still would require a special license. Permits are still required to harvest lionfish in no-take zones in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The new rules will be in effect until August 2013, after which the Conservation Commission could move toward making the no-license exemption for lionfish permanent, Hunt said.

“We recognize we aren’t going to eradicate lionfish from Florida,” he said.

Lionfish, which are native to the South Pacific and Indian Ocean, were first spotted off Dania Beach on Florida’s east coast in 1985. Since 2009, lionfish sightings have become more common.

In 2010, scientists caught two juvenile lionfish in net tows 99 miles and 160 miles off the Southwest Florida coast, west of Cape Romano. Since then, they have been reported in the northern Gulf of Mexico too.

Lionfish have up to 18 needlelike spines that inject venom when they are pressed. The meat of a lionfish is not poisonous and considered by some to be a delicacy.

Juvenile lionfish eat invertebrates but, as adults, they eat important reef fish species such as grouper and snapper. Scientists fear that lionfish will outcompete native fish for food and eliminate organisms that keep reefs healthy.

“We don’t have all the evidence yet, but we’re concerned,” Hunt said.
 

Copyright 2012 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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