Posted by: reefrescue | November 23, 2010

Florida Keys Declare Open Season on the Invasive Lionfish

New York Times, November 22, 2010


KEY WEST, Fla. — Crawling through turquoise murk on the ocean floor near Tea Table Key, Rob Pillus glances at a half dozen lobsters that twirl their antennae in the fast-moving current. Mr. Pillus, an avid spear fisherman, would normally stuff the crustaceans into his mesh bag for dinner, but today he is after more exotic quarry: an invasive species called the lionfish that threatens to wreak havoc on this ecologically sensitive marine system.

 Within a few minutes Mr. Pillus spots a lionfish and its extravagant zebra-striped fins on a bridge pylon. He steadies his homemade spear and skewers the fish, slicing off its venomous fins before putting it in his bag. He gives an enthusiastic thumbs-up and keeps moving.

Later, on the deck of his 28-foot motorboat, Mr. Pillus turns his bounty of five lionfish over to his teammate, Mike Dugan, who puts them on ice.

“Jackpot, fellas,” exclaims Mr. Pillus.

Mr. Pillus is team captain of the Lion Hunters, one of 18 groups of divers armed with nets or sharp spears who are here to compete in the final stage of a newly created lionfish derby in the Florida Keys.

Derbies like this are one way that officials and scientists are seeking to bring attention to the potential damage caused by this voracious, rapidly breeding fish and to control its spread, which in the Florida Keys has been so quick that wildlife managers are having a hard time adapting. The first fish wasn’t discovered until January 2009, when a single female was found and immediately removed by scientists from a reef in Key Largo. Now the lionfish is plentiful enough to have multiple derbies.

“We’re terrified,” says Dave Walton, site manager of Dry Tortugas National Park, a group of islands and an ecological reserve 60 miles west of Key West, where lionfish first appeared in September 2009.

If the lionfish’s impact on other parts of the Caribbean is any guide, Mr. Walton and others in the region are right to be concerned. It is a formidable predator that can devastate fish populations wherever it feeds. Researchers here examined more than 1,000 lionfish stomachs and found more than 50 species of prey fish inside, including juveniles of commercially important grouper and snapper. The fish also eat juvenile parrotfish, which graze on algae and keep it from overgrowing and killing corals.

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  1. Lionfish don’t mess around

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