They’re here: Angler’s surprise catch signals arrival of invasive lionfish

Kevin Sweeney
Reefs provide little or no protection from the lionfish, a deep-water menace to many different species of juvenile fish.

While fishing in about 10 feet of water on the hard-bottom reef patches just 200 yards from shore near the Ritz Carlton, Mike Damanski confirmed the inevitable when something unexpected showed up on the end of his line.

Damanski, who was out fishing with his mom and some friends for his birthday last week, landed a “15- or 16-ounce” red lionfish. The photo soon made the rounds on Facebook, unbeknown to Damanski that it was the first documented case of the species within the state water boundary of Collier County, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Nonindigenous Aquatic Species database.

“When I pulled the lionfish up I don’t think anybody expected it,” Damanski said. “I know they are destroying our reefs so we killed it and tossed it in the cooler.”

Make no mistake: lionfish are pigeons with a peacock’s plumage. And once they arrive, they can cause irreparable harm to the fragile underwater ecosystem. Lionfish have a voracious appetite, and will eat nearly anything that they can fit into their mouths. The fish can easily wipe out a population of juvenile fish that rely on the reef habitat for protection, and compete with native species such as snapper or the commercially crucial grouper for resources.

Bryan Fluech, director of the Collier County Sea Grant program, points out that once a population of lionfish has moved in, the existing marine life on a reef can be reduced by 80 percent in just a few weeks.

“Many species were affected, including cardinal fish, parrot fish, damselfish and others,” he said. “Research in the Bahamas has documented consumption of juvenile economically important fish. Therefore, the potential to upset the natural balance of coral reef ecosystems is very real. ”

It was only a matter of time before the invasive species showed up in local water. The ornately decorated fish with bright crimson stripes and long — yet venomous — pectoral and dorsal fins have long been a prized species for marine aquarium enthusiasts. However they made it from their native habitat of the Indian and South Pacific oceans to the Caribbean in the mid-1980s, there is no doubt that the lionfish have spread like a plague over the last decade.

Besides its aesthetic attributes, one thing that made the lionfish a popular aquarium species is its hardiness and ability to adapt to a variety of habitats. Reports of lionfish have now surfaced along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean as far north as Narragansett, R.I., and along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico all the way to the southernmost tip of Texas.

The Florida Keys, considered the epicenter of the invasion in North America since the first fish was reported in January 2009, has had approximately 30,000 documented cases, according to the Keys-based Reef Environmental Education Foundation. Those numbers continue to grow, although the extent of their population is difficult to gauge.

“One of our biggest concerns is how quickly they spread. When they come into an area, they take over,” Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesperson Amanda Nalley said.

“One of the reasons it is difficult to estimate population numbers is because they also found in depths that are well beyond SCUBA range, which can lead to a very large underestimation of their numbers,” Fluech said. “Navy submarines have reported sightings in over 500 feet. Also, because of their cryptic nature, it’s hard to get an accurate count even if they are in shallow waters.”

Although there have been reports of lionfish outside the state water boundary (federal water begins nine miles from the shoreline), the local waters of Collier could be especially vulnerable to the species.

Although natural structure isn’t as prevalent as other points along Florida’s coast, there are several hard-bottom patch reefs locally — like just off Wiggins Pass State Park — as well as artificially created reefs and other structure like discarded vessels or shipwrecks. The limited structure in local waters makes any available site prime real estate for lionfish to open a spawning ground.

“There have been confirmed reports 75 and 100 miles out. Counties further north — Lee and Charlotte for example — have had them much closer before. I wouldn’t be surprised if we have had them closer, too, but they just weren’t spotted,” Fluech said.

“I can tell you that every dive I have done, there has been lionfish,” said Bill D’Antuono, president of the Naples Spearfishing League. “This includes the Baja California wreck 60 miles offshore of Gordon’s Pass, and the ledges at 30 and 15 miles.”

Combined with a rapid reproduction rate and a year-round spawning season, eradicating them has proved to be a Sisyphean task anywhere the fish has been allowed to gain a foothold.

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There are several theories as to why the lionfish took so long to appear in the waters just off Collier County.

One study conducted on reefs in the Caribbean by the University of Queensland in 2011 found an inverse relationship between the amount of Nassau grouper on a reef system and the prevalence of lionfish within that system. Lionfish do not have a natural predator to control the population. Southwest Florida has a large population of goliath grouper, but those familiar with the local grouper and lionfish populations say the goliaths haven’t seemed to develop a taste for lionfish.

“Lionfish have been reported in the stomachs of large grouper, but laboratory behavioral experiments suggest that grouper actively avoid lionfish,” Fluech said.

The most likely explanation for why it’s taken so long for lionfish to surface locally is the same reason future attempts at their removal will be a challenge: There aren’t many people looking. The majority of lionfish sighting reports come from recreational divers — more specifically, spear fishermen. By law, spearfishing of any type is illegal in county waters.

Stemming from a county ordinance in 1956 intended to end the practice of gigging snook from the shoreline in shallow waters during their mating season, the law remains on the books thanks to the creation of the Fish and Wildlife Commission, which adopted the local ordinance as a “special act of local application.” This means that new laws, even at the state level, do not automatically supersede the original ordinance, such as the rule enacted by the FWC in August of 2012, making lionfish an unregulated species that did not require a license to catch.

Even though FWC regulations prohibit the taking of many protected species by use of a spearing device, creating redundancy with the existing Collier law, it remains a misdemeanor to enter the water within the nine-mile boundary carrying a spear gun.

“Lionfish are not exempt from that rule,” said Sgt. Dave Bruening of the Collier Sheriff Marine Bureau, adding that cases of illegal spearfishing have been rare in his six years of service.

Members of the local spearfishing community would like to see those laws changed. Since lionfish are rarely taken by hook-and-line, the only control method to be even remotely successful is spearing.

“If the county wants to change the laws, they can come to us and request to change it,” Nalley said. “All they have to do is ask.”

Members of the Collier County Commission did not respond to a request for an interview on the matter.

A recent study led by Mickie Anderson at the University of Florida found that while it is unlikely they will be completely eradicated, it may be “possible to keep them under control — in specific, targeted areas and using plenty of manpower.”

Should laws be changed to allow spearfishing, or at least the taking of lionfish via specialized spears, D’Antuono feels there would be a significant increase by the local dive community to target them, perhaps even organizing “derby-style” tournaments similar to those held in the Keys.

Lionfish also make excellent table fare, and many divers may seek them out for their dinner plates.

“I think if we opened up spearing in Collier County, it would give people interested in popping a lionfish a better advantage of getting in the water and doing so,” D’Antuono said. “Maybe change the rules so that you have to be on a boat and no shore spearfishing.”

“It is an important issue statewide and we hope that people go out and remove as many lionfish as possible,” Nalley said.

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