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Hunting lionfish

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Fewer than three years after the first lionfish was found in the Keys, the pesky non-native species has reached the waters off Lee County.

Until recently, the closest lionfish sightings were 99 and 160 miles off Marco Island and the nearshore waters off Sarasota County. Although there is no official first Lee County lionfish sighting, local divers have been seeing them for about three months.
“We expected it,” said Mike Campbell, a Lee County senior environmental specialist. “They’re north of us, and they’re south of us. There’s no reason to believe they’d skip Lee County.”

Natives of the Indo-Pacific, lionfish were probably introduced to the Western Atlantic and Caribbean through the intentional or accidental release of aquarium fish.

Voracious predators, lionfish are a threat to habitat they invade, from offshore reefs and ledges to estuaries, and have become the dominant fish species on many reefs in the Bahamas and Caribbean.

They are a particular threat to juvenile fish, including snapper and grouper. One study showed that a single lionfish can reduce recruitment of reef fishes on a small patch reef by 80 percent in five weeks.

Campbell was in the Bahamas last week, in part to study ways to control lionfish populations.

“They’re everywhere here,” he said. “We’ve been pulling a bunch of them up, checking what they’re eating. They’re really eating everything on the reef.”

In January 2009, a diver off Key Largo documented the first lionfish in the Keys.

Within a year lionfish had become so abundant that the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Reef Environmental Education Foundation organized a series of lionfish derbies designed to reduce the species’ population.

“We don’t have quantifiable data saying native fish populations in the Keys have declined because of lionfish,” said Jenny Tinnell, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission exotic species biologist. “We do have observations, people saying they’re seeing more and more lionfish and not as many native fish.”

On June 17, Jon “Hammerhead” Hazelbaker of Fort Myers Beach had his first Lee County lionfish encounter.

Spear fishing 60 miles due west of Redfish Pass, Hazelbaker, captain of Team Hammerhead in last year’s Lower Keys lionfish derby, killed an adult lionfish on a natural ledge in 130 feet of water. On July 3, he killed a second lionfish on a ledge in 90 feet of water 40 miles off the pass.

“I was totally shocked when I saw them,” Hazelbaker said. “The one in 90 feet was hanging out with four keeper-size red grouper and was 10 inches long — that’s bigger than anything we got in the derby. I took him home and deep-fried him.”

Brent Argabright, owner of Dean’s Dive Center has been seeing and getting reports about lionfish for about three months.

“My customers who do technical diving are seeing them at 150 and 160 feet, and seeing multiple ones,” Argabright said. “We’ve seen them as shallow as 40 feet on natural ledges. We’re just starting to see them, but one can only imagine how long they’ve been here.”

One way to control lionfish, Campbell said, is to encourage spear fishermen to target them. Their flesh has an excellent taste and texture, similar to hogfish.

“But these fish can survive depths where we can’t go,” Campbell said. “So, even if we have the greatest effort in terms of harvesting them, we won’t be able to get all of them. We need another way.”

While no lionfish predators have been positively identified in their native range, a recent study suggests Nassau grouper and tiger grouper are controlling the lionfish population in parts of the Bahamas.

While Nassau and tiger grouper are not found off Lee County, other grouper species are, including gag, black, red and goliath grouper.

“It would be wonderful if we had a natural predator for lionfish in our waters,” Tinnell said. “It might take groupers here a little while to learn to eat them. They’ve never encountered them before.”

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