ST. PETE BEACH — The scene at TradeWinds’ Guy Harvey Outpost on Sunday morning was a hodgepodge assembly line of fishermen weighing catches, scientists analyzing samples and high-end chefs preparing a fancy fish fry. The participants in the weekend’s Lionfish Safari seem to be the only predators for the lionfish, one of the deadliest fish in the ocean.
About 100 experienced divers from the Tampa Bay area paid a $20 entrance fee for the two-day hunt and brought in more than 500 of the invasive creatures. Two weeks ago at the St. Pete Open, the world’s largest deep-sea fishing tournament, about 300 of the fish were killed, and 83 were eliminated at a smaller event earlier in the year.
The story of the lionfish’s incursion of Tampa Bay began in the late 1980s, when about a dozen of the fish from Asia were released in the Gulf near Miami. However, the extent of the lionfish’s stranglehold on local fish populations has only been felt in the past few years.
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In the mid-2000s, Sean Patterson, a local captain and the event’s organizer, teamed up with St. Petersburg College oceanography professor Heyward Mathews to form Reef Monitoring Inc., a group of deep-sea divers dedicated to tracking and counting fish in the Gulf. But during many dives, they discovered a surprising number of the exotic lionfish and also found that they were coming closer to shore. Although they typically live in 80 to 100 feet of water, a lionfish was recently found on a beach in the Florida Keys in less than three feet of water.
The invasive species can eat 20 to 25 small fish a day and lay 3,000 eggs in a poisonous cluster every four days. When threatened, the fish puff out sharp spines full of deadly poison, and apart from the occasional human, it has no native predators.
“We know we can’t eliminate them, but we can try to control them; and if we’re going to kill them we might as well eat them,” Mathews said. “Part of the idea behind this was to cook them up so people can realize how good they are and we can start to develop a market for them.”
Few local restaurants serve lionfish because few fishermen hunt for them, said Justin Harry, executive chef for TradeWinds Resort. The fish are also smaller, with one of the largest brought in over the weekend weighing in at about 2½ pounds.
When the poisonous barbs are removed, the fish are perfectly fine for consumption, but getting over that stigma may be one of the biggest threats to the lionfish market.
Cody Long, 19, downed his Thai Lionfish crab cake in just a few bites, but he had an ulterior motive.
“I’m hoping this is the guy that stung me yesterday; it would make it even sweeter,” said Long, a captain with Rock Bottom Divers. A lionfish stuck Long in the knee during the tournament, but luckily he was able to keep fishing. The only known cure for a lionfish sting is heat, he said.
Students from the University of South Florida and St. Petersburg College volunteered with Reef Monitoring Inc. to examine each fish caught.
Brittany Barbara wiped her curly, blonde hair out of her eyes as she sawed into the heads of frozen fish to collect their ear bones, where rings form that indicate the fish’s age.
The students also examined the contents of the fishes’ stomachs to see what local species are their snacks of choice.
“This will help us see how fast the populations are growing, their ecology and how they’re affecting our reefs,” said Barbara, a 24-year-old recent SPC graduate and Tarpon Springs Aquarium employee who hopes to continue studying the lionfish.
“More is known about them here than where they live natively, because we’re trying to figure out how to stop them,” she said.
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Local businesses and dive companies are trying to stop them, too, and many donated prizes and other materials to attract more divers to the Lionfish Safari.
The hunt was the brainchild of marine wildlife artist Guy Harvey himself, said Lynda Waters, TradeWinds’ director of brand management. The artist created a special lionfish T-shirt for the event, and will donate $2 from each sale to local efforts to kill the species.