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Lionfish speared in the Florida Keys
Lionfish speared in the Florida Keys: A lionfish speared in the Florida Keys (Kevin Lollar/news-press.com)
Lionfish are an invasive species that eat large amounts of native species and quickly dominate a reef. / Kevin Lollar/The News-Press

Lionfish facts

Other common names: Red lionfish, red firefish, turkeyfish, zebrafish
Size: Typically, 6-12 inches; largest caught on the United States east coast (North Carolina) was 17 inches
Habitat: Near and offshore coral and rocky reefs to 160 feet, bays, estuaries and harbors
Diet: Small fish, shrimp, crabs, other lionfish
Danger to humans: The lionfish’s main defense is the venom on its fins.
Anyone seeing a lionfish is asked to report the sighting by going to nas.er.usgs.gov/sighting report.aspx

Check out environmental reporter Kevin Lollar's updates from his recent Florida Keys trip on Facebook and Twitter

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Florida has liberalized rules on the taking of lionfish, making it easier to harvest the invasive species.

Those who promote diving in Florida waters are pleased with the change and say a growing number of divers are targeting the fish for dinner.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recently made several changes in rules concerning lionfish that have started showing up in increasing numbers in state waters.

The new rules include no fishing license required when bagging lionfish using pole spears, hand-held nets, Hawaiian slings or other devices specifically designed for bringing in lionfish, and there’s no recreational or commercial bag limit for lionfish for the next year.

Ramiro Palma, owner of Scubavice Diving Center in Fort Myers, couldn’t be happier about the changes.

“It’s about time,” he said. “It is a good idea. It should help curtail the population of lionfish.”

He said the loosening of rules, especially the no-license-needed, will be an incentive for more people to go out after the prickly species.

In fact, Palma said, there has been an influx of divers going after the invasive critter.

“They are going after them to eat them,” he said.

While the fish may not be on area restaurant menus, it can be had at eateries in the Florida Keys.

At the Lazy Days restaurant in Islamorada, about halfway between Miami and Key West, manager Lisa Harris said lionfish is served when available. “We get it fresh, when it is caught,” she said.

“We prepare it just like any other fish,” Harris said. “It is very popular.”

Rule changes

Amanda Nalley, public information specialist, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Division of Marine Fisheries Management, said the loosening of rules does not open up spearfishing in areas where it is off-limits, such as under bridges or within 200-yards of a beach – or in Collier County, where spearfishing has been banned since the 1950s.

She also said anglers using a hook and line for lionfish will need a license and those commercially fishing for the species will need a Salt Water Products license.

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“It is pretty difficult to get them to bite, but people do commercially fish for lionfish,” she said.

Some divers who encounter the lionfish often just kill the fish, cut it up, and let it sink to the ocean floor, Nalley said.

But, she said, there also have been instances where people have gone after the fish to put in a home aquarium.

Nalley said the new rules run until August 2013.

Martha Klitzkie of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation was hopeful that the relaxed rules would prompt other states to follow suit.

“It is amazing how fast the lionfish has spread,” she said. Also helping to trim the species, REEF hosts lionfish catching derbies, mainly for snorkle divers.

Natives of the Indo-Pacific region, lionfish are voracious predators with no natural enemies.

Nalley said the reason for the changes to Florida fishing rules were because lionfish were becoming more prevalent. “We’re seeing them more and more and in other areas, like the Panhandle and northern waters,” she said.

How they got here

Most likely introduced to the Western Atlantic and Caribbean through accidental or intentional release of aquarium fish, lionfish eat huge quantities of juvenile fish.

A single lionfish was discovered in January 2009 off Key Largo, and the species has spread throughout the Keys. The species was first spotted in 1985, off Florida’s east coast.

Divers started seeing lionfish off Lee County in spring 2011. In April, Chad Knight of Punta Gorda speared a 12.5-inch lionfish in 16 feet of water less than one mile off the north end of Cayo Costa, which might be the closest to the Lee County shoreline yet recorded.

Staff writer Kevin Lollar contributed to this report.

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