The first report of lionfish in the Gulf of Mexico came two years ago. Compared to the first sighting over twenty years ago in the Atlantic Ocean, the lionfish’s arrival is relatively new. Theories of how the invasive species ended up in Florida's waters include a mix of once unwanted pets being released and escaping aquariums during Hurricane Andrew. But whatever the case may be, now the invasive species has reached high enough numbers to raise concerns.
“To give you an idea of how productive they are, for every one baby palmetto bug, you can have ten baby lionfish.” Says Biologist Tom Jackson with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Miami.
Native to the Pacific Ocean, lionfish have no natural predators. And with the ability to lay two million eggs a year, they are slowly taking over Florida’s reefs. That could lead a larger problem for the Gulf’s ecosystem.
“The problem is, it’s not say, the jacks that are being eaten or the parrot fish adults that are being eaten, but their juveniles. Juvenile snappers, juvenile groupers, that are settling onto the reef. So they’re eating at the low end of the food chain with higher impacts for my personal beliefs then on the higher end of the food chain.” Says Jackson. He says lionfish consume twenty to thirty species of fish.
Some diving groups such as the Emerald Coast Reef Association in Destin have held round-ups – spear-fishing tournaments to catch lionfish – to combat their population. The Association’s original purpose was to improve fisheries by building underwater habitats. But now with lionfish in the area, the Association has no choice but work on removing as many as they can.
“The biggest threat that we have, the biggest threat that we’ve ever had to our fishery up here is the lionfish. I think even bigger than the oil spill. The fish that they’re eating now, those are fish that will not survive to be caught a year or two from now. So right now the damage is being done.” Says the Association’s Vice President Candy Hansard. Though she doesn’t think what they are doing is not enough as the lionfish rapidly endanger fisheries important to Florida’s economy. She says in order to effectively control the species, there needs be a statewide program to hunt down lionfish.
Lionfish don’t seem to respond to bait and tackle fishing. The most effective way to catch them is by spearing them. Hansard says she’s talking to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conversation Commission to remove lionfish from fishing permits. That would mean anyone can catch lionfish at any time. And as it turns out, lionfish tastes great. Recipes are popping up all over the internet.