CLEARWATER BEACH — They may look pretty floating along in an aquarium, but left to their own devices in a setting to which they’re not native, lionfish are a worst-case scenario.
Ever since they managed to splash into the waters off South Florida, lion fish have proliferated throughout the Caribbean, eating important fish and breeding by the thousands.
Recently, they have been increasing in this area and near economically vital fishing areas. That’s why dozens of local boaters, armed with hand nets and spear guns, will take to the Gulf of Mexico today in search of them. It’s the first event of its kind in the Tampa Bay area.
“We’re trying to be proactive,” said Heyward Mathews, professor emeritus of oceanography at St. Petersburg College. “They’re everywhere. They’re everywhere.”
Mathews and his research nonprofit group, Reef Monitoring, hope the event will help to gauge the size of the local lionfish population, its behavior and its impacts. Their proliferation hasn’t yet been as dramatic as it has been farther south, where their appetite for baby parrot fish has resulted in detrimental algae overgrowth on coral reefs in the Caribbean.
The fish originates in the warm waters of the Indo-Pacific, but they have been in the Western Hemisphere since the 1980s. It is uncertain how they got into Florida waters. Some think a few were released by former owners, and some blame Hurricane Andrew for knocking an aquarium of lionfish into the ocean.
A single lionfish can spawn thousands of eggs at once, and the fish lacks natural predators. With their poisonous spines, voracious appetites and toxic egg sacs, they are deadly to many marine creatures.
“The only way to control them is for divers to spear them,” Mathews said.
Marine scientists and policymakers are concerned about their impact on the local fishing industry.
FWC is trying to make it illegal to import lionfish and easier to hunt them in otherwise restricted areas.
While the U.S. Geological Survey is compiling a map of sites lionfish have been spotted, not much is being done in terms of federal research funding or laws restricting trade of lionfish.
Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly of Indian Shores, scheduled to speak at today’s event, said he hopes to change that.
“We need to improve research funding for fisheries research across the board,” he said. “It’s going to take some time but it’s something I committed to working on.”
He said he would support a federal law restricting trade of lionfish.
Roughly 80 boats will participate today. As they return to the Clearwater Downtown Marina, student researchers will analyze the catch, including the length, weight, age and stomach contents of the fish.
“It’s kind of hard to close the door once the cow’s out,” Mathews said.