These guys didn’t look like the usual amateur underwater video team. The camera was as big as a large suitcase and had massive underwater video lights. There was a producer/director, camera operator and the “talent,” or “on camera” scuba diver.
They had come to the Keys to film a documentary about lionfish for the Canadian Discovery Channel.
I performed a “giant stride” water entry off the dive boat and followed the video team along the reef. The team kicked past a lionfish hidden under a ledge. The camera operator looked back and saw me taking a picture of the fish and the team swam back.
Lights, camera, action, the “on camera” diver shot the lionfish with a poll spear, or “Hawaiian Sling.” He speared the fish again just to make sure the cameraman got footage of the shot.
On the way back to the dive shop I learned that lionfish have become so invasive in the Keys that it is a newsworthy subject as far north as Canada. Why all the fuss?
Lionfish aren’t indigenous to the Keys. They are an exotic, invasive species of fish native to the Indo-Pacific region that can grow to a length of 18 inches. They eat Florida’s native fish, including those that keep algae in check on the reefs. They also compete for food with native predatory fish such as grouper and snapper, which is a concern to commercial fishermen.
Once lionfish find suitable habitat. they tend to stay there. They can reach densities of more than 200 adults per acre.
It is not known how lionfish showed up in our waters, but the invasion began with only a handful of fish. Release from ballast water was not likely. There is very little shipping from lionfish’s native range without the exchange of ballast water. Researchers believe lionfish probably followed currents up the Atlantic Coast, across to the Bahamas and then into the Gulf.
Lionfish reach maturity in less than a year and females can spawn every four days in warmer climates. They release two gelatinous egg masses of about 12,000 to 15,000 eggs each. These masses float and can drift for about 25 days.
The term invasion is an understatement. First sighted off Dania Beach, Florida, in 1985, they were spotted in South Florida and Bermuda in the 1990s. Reports of lionfish rapidly increased throughout the eastern United States, the Bahamas, Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.
By 2009, lionfish invaded the Florida Keys. Lionfish can now be found from Massachusetts to
Florida, Bermuda, throughout the Caribbean and in the Gulf of Mexico.
The lionfish invasion soon caught the attention of several organizations including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, Reef Environmental Education Foundation, a grass-roots organization that seeks to conserve marine ecosystems, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and even the Florida Legislature.
Controlling the lionfish population became a priority for these organizations, the dive community and even commercial fishermen.
Divers using spears and hand-held nets proved to be very important for controlling lionfish. Fisheries noticed that they were catching lionfish in lobster traps. It turned out lionfish are good to eat.
I personally can attest to the edibility of lionfish. But, you have to be careful when handling or cleaning lionfish. They have 18 venomous spines
In 2010 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association kicked off an “Eat Lionfish” campaign, (see: http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2010/20100806_lionfish.html) and partnered with REEF on a series of lionfish derbies for recreational scuba divers. The FWC maintains a calendar of lionfish derbies and events at: http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/lionfish/events/
REEF released a <i>Lionfish Cookbook<i> co-authored by Trish Ferguson and Lad Akins describing how to prepare lionfish,” the Caribbean's new delicacy.” REEF’s website lists local restaurants that serve the tasty fish. According to Akins, director of Special Projects, there is a growing demand in eateries in New York and Chicago for lionfish.
Last year the FWC hosted a “Lionfish Summit,” to study the issues and potential solutions to control the spread of lionfish. One item of concern is that lionfish can inhabit very deep water where they are extremely difficult to harvest. These deep water lionfish are capable of re-populating the shallow water reefs.
Based on ideas from the summit, the FWC met in April of this year and proposed regulatory measures and non-regulatory strategies to deal with the negative effects of lionfish in Florida.
On June 18 the Commission approved changes effective August 1, which: Prohibit the importation of live lionfish; Permit the harvest of lionfish when diving with a re-breather, a device that recycles air and allows divers to remain in the water for longer periods of time; and Allow participants in approved tournaments and other organized events to spear lionfish or other invasive species in areas where spearfishing is not allowed. This will be accomplished through a permitting system.
For background on lionfish and the June 18, 2014 meeting of the FWC see: http://myfwc.com/media/2808562/11a2-lionfish.pdf.
Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 28 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier three years ago where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers.