A temporary state rule declaring open season on lionfish may become permanent as a measure to keep the invasive species from becoming permanent Florida residents.
"We applaud the state for this effort," said Lad Akins, one of Florida's most experienced lionfish catchers. "It makes it easier for people to go out and take part in lionfish removals, so it's definitely a step in the right direction," Akins, special projects director at the Reef Environmental Education Foundation in Key Largo, said this week.
When the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meets Tuesday through Thursday in Lakeland, the state's fishery managers are expected to take a final vote on "eliminating the requirement for a recreational fishing license when targeting the nonnative, invasive lionfish with certain [dive] gear, and not imposing recreational or commercial limits on harvesting."
An executive order allowing divers and snorkelers to use catch bags, hand nets and spears, all without a fishing license, to catch or kill lionfish was issued last August for a one-year trial. An approval during Tuesday's consent agenda would make the rule permanent.
"Lionfish are extremely disruptive to native ecosystems, damaging reefs by preying upon fish important to the health of corals, and preying upon and competing with commercially important reef fish," an FWC staff report says.
Not requiring divers to have a saltwater fishing license "facilitates the removal of lionfish from the state waters off Florida."
Hook-and-line anglers and commercial fishermen can take lionfish at any time with no limit, but need standard fishing licenses.
Lionfish, a Pacific species that has adapted well to the Atlantic, first were found off the Florida Keys in January 2009. They are considered environmental super villains because they are prolific breeders with a voracious appetite for native fish.
They have no known natural predators in the Atlantic, and the lionfish's array of 18 venomous spines is a big reason why. They can survive in waters a few inches deep or more than 1,000 feet deep.
Akins said the Florida Keys campaign against lionfish has reached a "good news, bad news" state.
"The good news is that when you go to a popular reef site like Molasses Reef or Looe Key, it's not very likely that you're going to see a lionfish," Akins said. "That's because divers and our dive-boat crews have been actively removing them on a regular basis, which keeps the numbers down."
Matt Hamas, an instructor at Quiescence Diving of Key Largo, said, "Our divers know that if they see a lionfish, they should note the specific location and tell us."
"Then our captains and crew will go find them. Since the lionfish are territorial, they really don't move around much," Hamas said.
Akins said the situation "at reefs off the beaten path" is more worrisome.
"We had a team at a small patch reef in Hawk Channel off Key Largo on Tuesday, and they got 16 lionfish," he said. "The lionfish numbers are still going up throughout much of the Caribbean, and the sizes are getting bigger."
Akins said in Florida, additional rule changes could help the lionfish eradication effort.
"Right now it's still illegal to spearfish within 100 yards of shoreline, and there are a lot of lionfish hanging out under bridges in that zone," he said.
Spearfishermen also are banned from taking any fish, including lionfish, while using a diving rebreather that does not create exhaust bubbles. "We're going in the right direction but we believe more can be done," Akins said.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary created a special permit that allows divers who attend a training class to use hand nets and catch bags to take lionfish from Sanctuary Preservation Areas, where nearly all other type of fish harvest is banned.
Professional divers with certified Blue Star operations can use spears inside the SPA zones. The sanctuary's ecological reserves remain off-limits to most lionfishing efforts.