Imagine hunting or fishing as much as you want without regards to size or bag limits. What sounds like a formula for environmental disaster is actually a recipe for aiding the environment while harvesting a delicious treat–lionfish.
Lionfish, an invasive species, were first found off Southeast Florida in 1985. In a little over 10 years, they have spread throughout most of the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and much of the eastern Atlantic Ocean.
This beautiful fish, popular in aquariums for its showy stripes and feathery fins, is hurting populations of native marine species. They eat juvenile game fish and shellfish, and compete with native fish for food sources. No marine predator is eating lionfish in numbers and no one has found a way to control the population. The only serious threat to lionfish is the human appetite for fresh seafood.
Some of the highest concentrations of lionfish are found off the shores of the Florida Panhandle. During Florida’s Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day (LRAD) held May 14, 2016, a total 14,067 lionfish were removed statewide, with 9,978 coming from the Florida Panhandle. Pensacola hosts the state record for largest lionfish, speared by Charlie Meyling–2.92 pounds, 17.52 inches.
Lionfish flesh is similar to hogfish or flounder. However, the venomous spines scare off many potential diners. Consumers mistake the term “venomous” with “poisonous” or “toxic”, but lionfish are very safe to eat. Eating lionfish is like eating rattlesnake– the venom located in the snake’s fangs does not taint the flesh. Additionally, when lionfish is cooked whole with the showy spines intact, heat breaks down the venom, making it harmless. If diners are still put off by the prickly appearance, they can ask the chef to remove the spines or fillet their lionfish.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation (FWC) Commission is working to create a demand for lionfish. This, in turn, will encourage more divers to get their $50 Saltwater Products License so they can sell their lionfish to wholesalers. Whether divers want to sell their fish or not, FWC is trying several new programs to encourage divers to remove lionfish from our reefs. For example, lionfish hunters do not need a fishing license to target lionfish with a pole spear or a net. This was done to encourage divers vacationing in Florida to do a little eco-diving.
For the first time this year, divers catching 50 lionfish can send a photo to FWC to receive a T-Shirt and commemorative coin. They will also be entered in drawings for prizes like fishing licenses, lionfish harvesting equipment, and air fills. If the diver harvests more lionfish, they can turn in the tails to participating dive shops for more chances to win.
Because lionfish concentrations are so high in the Florida Panhandle (Franklin to Escambia County), FWC has created a special pilot program for the area. Divers who submit 100 tails are eligible for red grouper and cobia tags, increasing their bag limit. The first 10 divers or groups that turn in 500 lionfish tails will have an artificial reef named after them. See all the incentives and collection points at http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/lionfish/challenge/.
Not everyone is capable of hunting lionfish, but there are ways you can help. Ask your favorite restaurant or seafood market for lionfish. Go to ReefRangers.com and sponsor a lionfish team or donate