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Is it possible to eradicate lionfish from our waters?

In the past couple of decades since lionfish really started taking over the reefs in Florida, The Bahamas, the Caribbean, and along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, we’ve speared, hooked and cooked lionfish in the hundreds of thousands. But can we eradicate lionfish?

Unfortunately, we’re still a long way from controlling their spread, but a new front is opening in the war against the Indo-Pacific invaders: traps designed exclusively to harvest them.

Trap ’em

Commercial fishers in the Florida Keys have been very successful at catching lionfish in their lobster traps. During the eight-month-long, 2017-18 lobster harvest season, trappers hauled in nearly 100,000 pounds of the venomous-spined exotics, and they weren’t even trying. One fisherman accounted for 30,000 pounds of that total, mostly from depths of more than 100 feet. Lionfish diving derby catches were less than half that amount. Raking in a tidy $6.25 per pound, harvesters were barely able to keep up with the high demand from restaurants and grocery stores.

Spearing Lionfish
A diver spears one of many lionfish during a lionfish derby.

The bountiful lionfish bycatch gave the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association an idea to test four trap designs. The group spent three years pushing reams of documents through a Byzantine gauntlet of state and federal bureaucracies. They also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance the experiment with neither a yes or no from regulators. Finally, the Association threw in the towel last April. Association executive director, Capt. Bill Kelly, believes resource managers were stalling for fear of creating a new commercial trap fishery in waters where the gear had long been banned. But Kelly said all his group wanted to do was test “proof of concept.”

Not long afterward, NOAA Fisheries, which regulates commercial and recreational fishing in the U.S. and manages a network of marine sanctuaries, announced it was open for public comment on a similar, but scaled-back trapping permit request from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). Kelly calls it “an absolute slap in the face” to his industry.

Spur Innovations

Early this year, the FWC awarded some $250,000 in grants to five organizations to test gear designed to harvest lionfish in waters too deep for safe recreational diving. The University of Florida plans to look at a “non-containment curtain trap.” Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) wants to figure out whether recordings of “lionfish vocalizations” could be a tool for attracting the predators into a trap. American Marine Research Company plans to develop an underwater drone to harvest lionfish. R3 Digital Sciences is working on extension kits for existing commercial lobster traps, and Atlantic Lionshare Ltd. is developing a remotely-operated underwater vehicle to suck up lionfish from the depths.

Meanwhile, the FWC has stepped up its incentives for recreational and commercial divers by awarding thousands of dollars in cash and prizes in the Lionfish Challenge which ran through September 3rd. The agency will hold its second lionfish summit October 2-4 in Cocoa Beach, Florida, where divers, scientists, conservationists, and resource managers are invited to discuss the latest developments in lionfish control.

While both divers and trappers are the most effective soldiers in lionfish naval warfare, anglers have also joined the fray. Scientists from Nova Southeastern University near Fort Lauderdale regularly catch the enemy species on hook-and-line using live bait on deep wrecks. Since the International Game Fish Association opened lionfish to world record recognition in 2013, the all-tackle winner has changed hands three times. The current mark is Jesse Paul Moore’s 2-pound, 12-ounce fish he caught in August 2015 using sardine for bait off Madeira Beach on Florida’s West Coast.

Uphill Battle

No one really believes that lionfish can be eradicated from infested waters. With females capable of producing 50,000 eggs every three days that mature in a year, the species seems too well established to knock out completely. However, control efforts have succeeded in driving them off of some local reef systems, and those who care about the health of the marine ecosystem aren’t willing to give up the fight.

By Sue Cocking, Southern Boating October 2018

For more, check out our article on eating lionfish.

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