Florida’s Lionfish Invasion is Catching the Eye of Congress

[dropcap size=small]D[/dropcap]uring a recent trip to Key West, Fla., U.S. Congressman Steve Southerland, (R), who serves on the House Natural Resources Committee and its Fisheries Subcommittee, got an up-close, personal look at an invasive lionfish.  Two rapidly reproducing and voracious non-native lionfish species, imported from the Indo-Pacific region, are wreaking havoc on fisheries and marine ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico, Western Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea. 

Southerland, who was attending a Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meeting, spent extra time to learn more about the lionfish invasion which is also growing more populous on the reefs near his hometown of Panama City, Fla.  The congressman serves Florida’s second district which includes over half of the Florida Panhandle’s coastal waters.

Capt. Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association, and Sean Morton, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, showed Southerland a lionfish on display in an aquarium at the sanctuary’s Eco-Discovery Center in the southernmost city.  Kelly, a speaker at the first-ever Lionfish Summit held last October by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commissionin Cocoa Beach, Fla., explained to Congressman Southerland how the invasion has grown to enormous proportions  and detailed efforts now being considered to launch a commercial lionfish trapping program in hopes of containing their spread.

“We discussed the significance of this invasion and impacts on indigenous species,” said Kelly.  “While the typical fisherman may not know much about them, since lionfish are rarely caught on conventional fishing tackle, thousands of recreational divers, descending to 100 ft. depths, have observed growing numbers of them on popular Florida reefs, submerged wrecks and other underwater sites.  However, these population densities pale in comparison to lionfish aggregations found deeper (120-300’ or more) beyond safe recreational diving depths.”

“Anglers and the general public should be very concerned,” Kelly said. “For example juvenile groupers and snappers are among some 100 documented fish which lionfish prey on and despite its now 1-1/2pound average size, the lionfish can live for about 15 years and most likely double in size again.”  Marine researchers at the Lionfish Summit reported a single lionfish necropsy verified consumption of 20 tropical fish in only 30 minutes time.  In highly infested areas native fish populations have been reduced by as much as 80% in five weeks.

U.S. Congressman Steve Southerland (left), of Panama City, Fla., and Capt. Bill Kelly, Exec. Dir. of the Florida Keys Commercial Fisherman’s Association, view a lionfish on display in an aquarium at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s Eco-Discovery Center in Key West. Photo: Melissa Thompson

“Crustaceans like crab, shrimp and even juvenile spiny lobster are also popular food sources found in the stomach contents,” Kelly added, “as are herbivores, the very important small colorful fish that help keep coral reefs free of algae. Divers in many communities have helped keep lionfish populations in check through organized lionfish derbies and contests by spearing and hand-netting them.”

“In the five year history since 2009 when lionfish were first spotted in the Keys, commercial lobster trappers have been finding increasing numbers as by-catch intheir spiny lobster traps.  The numbers and sizes of lionfish have skyrocketed from 49 lbs at a 1/3 lb average caught the first year, to more than 10,000 pounds in 2013 averaging more than a pound apiece, as reported by just one commercial fisherman during an eight month fishing season.”

“And as we explained to Congressman Southerland, our commercial lobster trappers have seen denser populations of lionfish in much deeper waters from 100 to 300 feet,” said Kelly.  “By developing the right trapping methods, lionfish could become a very valuable and nutritious consumer commodity while protecting our ecosystems.”

The Lionfish Invasion

The first sighting of lionfish in U.S. waters was reported in 1985 in the Atlantic waters off Dania Beach near Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.  It was believed to have been released by a tropical fish enthusiast who may have grown tired of caring for the exotic import, which may have been eating other expensive and colorful fish in his tank.

Indigenous to the tropical waters of the South Pacific, lionfish populations are held in check in their native habitat by natural predation.  However, invasive lionfish have no natural predators and have spread rapidly in the past 29 years in sub-tropical and temperate waters of the northern hemisphere.  Just one female is capable of producing as many as 30,000 eggs every four days or more than two million eggs a year.

With a thermal tolerance of about 50 degrees, some 35 degrees less than their native habitat, lionfish have been found in Atlantic waters as far north as Rhode Island. In the U.S. the heaviest concentrations have been from Carolina waters south to the Florida Keys. They have also spread throughout the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the Bahamas, the Caribbean Islands and eastern Central and northern South America.

The ornate red and white stripped lionfish possesses 18 venomous spines on its dorsal fin and its pelvic and anal fins, which are used for defense. Its venom, a protein-based neurotoxin, can cause severe pain and swelling.  Spearfishermen and commercial fishermen use safety techniques such as long spears, hand nets and puncture proof gloves to carefully avoid the spines. Though the spines, which are removed during the cleaning process, are venomous, it has no effect on the lionfish meat which is considered a delicacy and cooked in a variety of recipes.

How to Fight It

Kelly said he and Southerland discussed several core issues.

“Besides talking about how quickly this invasion occurred, the damages to the ecosystem and how widespread it has become, our hour long conversation included containment methods such as divers using spears and nets near shore, and major emphasis on a well-monitored commercial trapping program offshore. Once that begins we’ll tie-in consumer awareness and educational program, leading to bigger demand for these fish in more restaurants, seafood houses and grocery store fish counters.”

Southerland, Kelly said, was very concerned and indicated he would call for a subcommittee hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee.

“The alarm was sounded over 20 years ago by NOAA biologist and ecologist Dr. James Morris.  Now, in a relatively short period of time, we may very well be facing one of the most threatening marine invasions of our lifetime.  Until such time as native species of fish acquire an appetite for lionfish, if they ever do, our most promising method of containment will be a well-designed and closely monitored commercial trapping venture.  Time is of the essence,” said Kelly.