Chad Knight of Punta Gorda killed this 12.5-inch lionfish Sunday less than one mile off Cayo Costa. Lionfish are non-natives that can severely decrease local fish populations , and scientists are worried that they will soon move into Lee County’s estuaries, which are important fish nurseries . / Special to The News-Press
Scientific name: Pterois volitans
Other common names: Red lionfish, red firefish, turkeyfish, zebrafish
Native distribution: The Indo-Pacific
Size: Typically, 6 to 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
Predators: Large lionfish eat small lionfish, but no other predators have been positively identified.
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 http://nas.er.usgs.gov/sighting report.aspx
More bad news on the lionfish front: The voracious non-native pest is getting closer to Lee County’s shoreline and estuaries.
On Sunday, 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.
“I was looking for sheepshead and snappers, when I saw this thing all fluffed out,” Knight said. “I thought, ‘What in the world is that? Man, that’s a lionfish.
“I’d heard that they were in the Keys and the Bahamas and that they’re bad, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to shoot it,’ so I did. That’s the last thing we need around here.”
Natives of the Indo-Pacific region, lionfish are voracious predators that have no natural enemies.
Most likely introduced to the Western Atlantic and Caribbean through accidental or intentional release of aquarium fish, lionfish eat huge quantities of juveniles fish.
They can become the dominant species in any habitat they invade: A study in the Bahamas showed that one lionfish can reduce the recruitment of reef fishes on a small patch reef by 80 percent in five weeks.
A single lionfish was discovered in January 2009 off Key Largo, and the species has spread throughout the Keys.
Divers started seeing lionfish off Lee County in spring 2011; Knight’s lionfish might be the closest to the Lee County shoreline yet recorded.
“Out there, juvenile grunt, groupers and snappers will all be lionfish prey, for sure,” said Aaron Adams, a senior scientist for Mote Marine Laboratory. “Inside the estuary, it will have the same juveniles. If they get into the mangroves, there will be a whole suit of stuff they could start picking off.”
Because estuaries are important nurseries for many fish species, an inshore invasion could be particularly bad for fish populations.
“If there was one fish that close, there are others as close if not closer,” Adams said. “I’d lay odds that we’ll be finding them close to or in Charlotte Harbor and Pine Island Sound this year.”
Lionfish like vertical structure, Adams said, so docks and seawalls would make good habitat for them.
The time has come to take up arms against lionfish, said Mike Campbell, a Lee County senior environmental specialist.
“The more we see, the more concerned we’re going to be about lionfish interrupting the ecology of the area,” he said. “I’d like to get everybody who is willing and able out spear fishing for these things.”
Over the past three years, lionfish derbies, in which teams compete to kill the most lionfish, have been held in the Keys, but Campbell said those don’t put a dent in the population.
“They’re great to create awareness, but they don’t keep pressure on the lionfish,” he said. “It’s a one-and-done thing. Two months later, you’re back to where you started.”
To keep pressure on lionfish, Campbell wants to start a program in which divers, dive clubs, groups or sponsors can adopt Lee County’s artificial reefs and make regular trips to kill lionfish and clean up debris.
“We don’t have the money to pay people to go out and kill lionfish, but if everybody came together, we might be able to keep their numbers in check,” Campbell said. “We’re building reefs, and now we have to invest the time and effort in managing them, and that includes killing lionfish.”