Fishing Florida:The Lionfish Invasion
The Indo-Pacific lionfish, a popular non-native aquarium fish, was accidentally introduced to the eastern seaboard and Caribbean in the 1990s. After its introduction to the Atlantic, the lionfish has steadily expanded its range. The first confirmed sighting of a lionfish occurred within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) in January 2009. The lionfish has no known natural predators in the Atlantic, an appetite for native fish and crustaceans, and the ability to spawn year-round. Because of this, ecologists are concerned that lionfish could have an impact on native reef fish populations and the natural balance of the reef ecosystem.
Prior to the arrival of lionfish in the Keys, FKNMS and other partners developed an early detection and rapid response plan for invasive fish. Stickers listing the reporting hotline numbers were distributed to dive operators and marinas throughout the Keys while outreach campaigns served to raise awareness of the fish and the reporting hotlines. Upon receipt of a sighting report, trained divers were deployed to capture the fish.
As lionfish sightings increased during 2009, resource managers began enlisting the help of the dive community in control efforts to remove the invasive fish. Lionfish capture technique workshops were held throughout the Keys and attended by more than 100 dive operators, marine life collectors and members of the research community. These workshops were a prerequisite for a sanctuary permit to remove lionfish which must be done with hand nets within the 18 no take zones of the sanctuary. No permit is required to remove lionfish from the general use areas of the sanctuary or outside sanctuary boundaries, but training is strongly recommended.
In the first year of the invasion, approximately 60 lionfish sightings were confirmed, with about 50 percent successfully removed from sanctuary waters. The majority have been sighted by divers, though a few have been found in lobster traps. Hook and line capture of lionfish is rare, though possible. Lionfish have no known depth preference and have been found in the Keys as shallow as seawalls and as deep as the artificial reef of the Vandenberg (140 feet). Nor do they seem to have a habitat preference as they have been found on reefs, in mangroves and in seagrass meadows.
Divers in the Florida Keys who spot a lionfish are encouraged to take note of the location and call the reporting hotline (305)852-0030. Trained divers may attempt to capture or kill the fish, but are asked to report the sighting and location. Anglers should be careful if they catch a lionfish. If it becomes hooked, the line should be cut releasing the fish into a cooler. No attempt should be made to remove the hook itself since the venomous spines of the lionfish release a toxin that can be extremely painful. If accidentally stung, immerse the wound in hot water and seek immediate medical attention. The 24-hour Aquatic Toxins Hotline at the Florida Poison Information Center in Miami has medical experts on hand and can be reached by calling 1-888-232-8635.