The Lion’s Share: Florida’s Lionfish Problem

Courtesy of the FWC, lionfish

Courtesy of the FWC 

A University of Florida researcher sees no end in sight for the eradication of the invasive fish in Florida waters that has been taking a lion’s share of reef habitats.

Tom Frazer, professor and interim director of the school of natural resources and environment, was published in this year’s issue of Reviews in Fisheries Science that shows troublesome lionfish may never be removed from Florida’s coastline reefs but may be kept under control in targeted areas. 


Frazer’s research took place on Little Cayman Island with the Central Caribbean Marine Institute based out of Princeton University.  The group studied the threats posed by lionfish to the reefs there such as eating native fishes and potentially reducing biodiversity in the ecosystem, he said. 


The spiny, ornate lionfish were identified off the coast of Florida in the 1980s, Frazer said.  Since then, they have skyrocketed in numbers and have now spread to Caribbean and South American waters as well as the Gulf of Mexico. 


The creatures were first seen within Bloody Bay Marine Park on Little Cayman Island in 2008, he said.


The research done by Frazer’s team off Little Cayman Island was conducted over several months in 2011.  The group measured and dissected the stomachs of lionfish removed off of 11 reef sites by local dive masters, he said. 


Voracious and venomous predators, these fish victimize valuable juveniles of native species such as grouper and snapper, he said. 


The dissection was done to find whether bigger lionfish have different diets than the smaller, he said.  Frazer’s research shows that smaller lionfish eat shrimp, a much less economically valuable resource. 


The reason lionfish are such a threat to the reef ecosystems is they are prolific breeders, Frazer said.  A mature female has the ability to lay tens of thousands of eggs every two to three days.

The growth rate of lionfish is so quick that scientists struggle to study them before maturity. 


Adults have no known predators, Frazer said. 


The REEF Headquarters director of special projects, Lad Akins, said derbies have been held throughout Florida in an attempt to keep the lionfish population under control.  In these competitions, divers and snorkelers try to catch as many fish as possible in a given time frame using spears or nets.


This year’s tournament in Key Largo hosted 11 teams that brought in 461 lionfish, he said.  The largest of the fish was 410 millimeters long.  Prizes were given for the most fish caught, the largest and the smallest.


The event was September 8. 


Akins added the effort to maintain control of the lionfish population in Florida and Caribbean waters must be sustained over time in order to work. 


Similar derbies have been hosted in Palm Beach and Broward counties, according to the REEF Headquarters website. 


In a phone interview, Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission public information specialist

Amanda Nalley said the possibility of completely eliminating lionfish is unlikely because they swim to depths that prevent divers from capturing them.  

Because of the increase in lionfish numbers, a temporary change has been made in the regulations for lionfish fishing, she said.  The change allows non-licensed divers to go after the species as long as they use equipment approved by the FWC such as pole spears, Hawaiian slings or other lionfish-specific devices. 


The limit for unregulated fish is two fish or 100 pounds per day, whichever is more. 


Commercial fish harvesters have no such limit but must report their catch, Nalley added.  These harvesters are also helping the cause by going after lionfish even if the fish are a by-catch caught along with their commercial game.  Lionfish can weigh up to 2.6 pounds. 


“I think that in order to make a significant impact on lionfish the effort will have to be sustained for a very long period of time and I’m hoping that, when we identify the locations that are most important, we can allocate the resource that is needed through that effort,” Frazer said.


The Stone Crab Grab

 Angry Stone CrabIn the cooler months in Florida, stone crabs seek the warmth of the brackish inter-coastal waters. For me, I’ll always think of these months as the ones my friends drop their Maryland-style crab traps (also called “crab pots”) to the floor of the Indian River Lagoon and check them every few evenings for any crustaceans.

Stone crabs range from the North Atlantic all the way down to Mexico and, although their bodies don’t have much meat, their claws are considered a delicacy served up with butter.  A Floridian from birth, I particularly enjoy eating all shellfish from crawdads to crabs.

This past Thursday night, I was lucky enough to be invited along to check my friend Eric’s crab trap.  Being an early March evening in Florida, the temperatures that were fairly warm in the day plummeted down to a fairly cold (especially for Florida) 53 degrees. Continue reading

Spring Break: 5 Splashing Fun Things to Do!

OWC John

My friend John at Orlando Watersports Complex.

If you’re anything like me, you’re plan for Spring Break is to bust out the bikini and lose that winter pale you’ve been sporting for way too long.  But why limit yourself to beach tanning when there are plenty of other ways to find yourself outdoors while you’re on Spring Break?

1. Rent a KAYAK!  Kayaks are fun, self-propelled boats that are easy to become the captain of.  A double-sided paddle that requires a rotating motion pushes water back while sending you forward on the water.  Exploring a local lake, river, stream, brook or riding the ocean waves can be relaxing, healthy and fun in that springtime sunshine.

2. Try wakeboarding!  When I was in 9th grade, my best friend Bennett was really into wakeboarding.  Wakeboarding is a more modern alternative that finds itself in the water skiing genre of activities.  For the most part, a wakeboard is a snowboard for water.  The catch is you need a motor boat to pull you UNLESS you find yourself in the Orlando area where you can rent a board and ride motorized cables that will pull you around at Orlando Watersports Complex (OWC).

3.  Enjoy a beach cookout!  More often than not, public beaches sport pavilions out front with a charcoal grill assiKey Largo Manateegned to each one.  Stake your claim at one of these pavilions with a bunch of friends, grab a bag of charcoal from your local Wal-mart along with some hotdogs and you’re good to go.   Nothing beats a messy cookout with a public shower!

4. Visit the manatees.  These fat and friendly Florida natives will welcome you with placid, whiskered faces anywhere they can find warm water.  If you’re in my neck of the woods, say hello to the manatees of the Manatee Observation and Education Center in Ft. Pierce!  You’ll even have an opportunity to check out the museum and donate a little monetary love to these beautiful and humorous endangered creatures.

5. Go for a beach side jog!  There’s no need to lose that beach bod before break even ends so get your sneakers on and challenge yourself to run from one beach to another.  You’ll be soaking up the sun and making room for an ice cream cone after!

Don’t sweat the small sharks

To the experienced fisherwoman, catching little sharks in the shallow waters of the Florida Keys is simply an obnoxious business.

However, if you’re me and you enjoy spending time on a boat with your best friends, listening to music and pulling out whatever catch manages

Carina with a bonnethead of Bahia Honda Key

Me with a bonnethead off Bahia Honda Key.

to pierce its lip with your hook, little shark fishing can be a thrilling experience.

This past summer I went on our annual Keys fishing trip which includes my own family and a couple of my friends and their families.  On days when the weather wasn’t right to get out into the open blue, we preferred to make a “kids boat” although all of us are well into our adult lives and an “old folks boat.”  In hopes of catching yellowtail snapper or grouper (and catching way too many grunts) to make up our dinner, we anchored on the west side of Bahia Honda bridge off of Bahia Honda Key. Continue reading