By Dr. Heyward Mathews & Dr. Monica Lara
On Sept. 12-13, Reef Monitoring Inc., held its second annual Lionfish Safari to combat the population explosion of the invasive lionfish into our local Gulf waters. From a few of this Pacific species of reef fish that were released into Florida waters in the late 1980s, their numbers have grown to the point where they are now a serious threat to our local reef fish species.
Lionfish have spines that are very painful to the touch and are not native to our waters. They have no known natural predators. To make matters worse, they can lay over 4,000 eggs a week. The eggs are enclosed in a jelly mass that is toxic, so nothing eats their eggs.
The eggs float in a jelly mass for three weeks, then drop down to the bottom, and quickly grow to a size where they can consume 15 to 20 small snapper, grouper or other small reef fish in a single day! Lionfish are not consistently caught on hook and line. Traps are either not effective or they produce too much by-catch, so the only way to control them at this point is to have divers spear them.
This year’s lionfish round up, sponsored by Reef Monitoring, was the largest so far. Divers brought in 884 lionfish, twice the number removed last year. The divers were in the Gulf of Mexico all day Saturday and brought their iced down lionfish to the Guy Harvey Outpost on St. Petersburg Beach for weigh in starting at 9:30 Sunday morning.
Our SPC marine biology research team arrived at 9 a.m. Sunday to begin collecting scientific data on the fish caught. Recent SPC graduate Brittany Barber, who now works for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, led the team. The research team of SPC students and alumni included Alisha Phillips, Carly Burgess, Riccardo Carrelli, Kirstin Shade, Jody Hartlove and Michelle Phillips.
After the data from every fish was recorded, they were filleted and prepared by chefs from the Guy Harvey Outpost. This was to show how tasty these fish are and to promote and develop a demand for lionfish in local restaurants. The goal is to introduce the public to this fish as a food source, which could create a demand for lionfish in the commercial fishery industry. Lionfish would then be harvested on a regular basis.
Representatives from Florida Sea Grant attended the event to talk about lionfish research that has been performed and what is currently being studied about them. In addition, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission representatives spoke about different programs that are either developing or are already in place to encourage recreational divers to assist in harvesting lionfish. Vendors attending the event promoted diving safety, how to harvest and handle lionfish safely, sun protection and products that help remedy the after affects of a lionfish sting.
The event was organized in part by Cory Trier, a board member of Reef Monitoring Inc., and SPC bachelor’s degree student majoring in biology. Trier promoted the event by raising awareness of the prevalence of lionfish in our local waters. The goal of the event was to better inform the public about all aspects of lionfish, from their invasiveness and destruction of our nurseries and local reefs to the promotion of lionfish as a food source.
Trier promoted the event with local dive shops, dive clubs, TradeWinds Island Resorts and the Tampa Bay area public. More than $2,200 in cash prizes were awarded to the divers who brought in the lionfish and hundreds of donated items were raffled off to event attendees.
During the 2015 Lionfish Safari, twice the number of lionfish were removed over last year’s event and diver participation increased significantly, to 159 registered divers. The larger number of fish collected and the increase in their overall size is an indication that the problem in the Gulf is continuing to get worse.
Future events include , the “State of the Reefs III” Symposium on April 15 at the Clearwater Campus Fine Arts Auditorium. SPC marine biology students will present their results from their ongoing research projects. If you have any students working on marine projects and want them to present their work, please submit an abstract to Dr. Monica Lara by March 15.