Over 21,000 Lionfish Removed During Florida Lionfish Challenge

by Jennifer Shea

Lionfish are a ravenous invasive species native to the Indo-Pacific that have migrated across the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico and into Florida’s coastal waters. So the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission came up with a creative way to combat the threat. It sponsored the Lionfish Challenge, a five-month competition to spear thousands of the invasive fish.

This year, 185 divers participated in the challenge. A total of 21,146 lionfish disappeared from Florida’s waters. And participation reached a record high, Field & Stream reports.

One first-place finish went to Brooks Feeser of Jupiter, Florida, who won the recreational title by spearing 1,632 fish. Another first-place finish went to Rachel Bowman of Marathon, Florida, who topped the commercial division with 730 pounds of fish.

Lionfish Are a Menace to Florida’s Native Fish

Lionfish first showed up in the western Atlantic Ocean during the 1980s. They may have gotten there after people released their aquarium pets into the ocean.

Since that time, the lionfish, which can lay up to 2 million eggs per year, have reproduced ferociously. With scant natural predators to take them out, they feasted on the fish that clean coral reefs of algae as well as other native species.

Florida Fish and Wildlife officials said they have no data on the local population of the invasive fish. But they believe that competitions like theirs are making a dent, along with other factors.

“We can say, anecdotally, that we have heard of people seeing less lionfish on commonly visited reefs, which could be a sign of people knowing more how to harvest and taking action,” Amanda Nalley, a spokeswoman for the Florida FWC, told Field & Stream. “There are also other factors that could be at play as well, including a recent disease that has impacted lionfish, as well as them possibly moving into deeper waters. Regardless, every bit of lionfish removal helps control the lionfish population and is something to be celebrated.”

Fish Are Edible and Tasty

Lionfish is on the menu at a number of restaurants in Florida, and it is considered safe, even tasty, for humans to eat. So people who go spearfishing for the fish can usually sell what they get.

Scientists and wildlife officials are trying to develop lionfish traps. But for the time being, one must snorkel or SCUBA dive to catch them.

The Key Largo-based Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) keeps a list of restaurants that offer lionfish. It is helping to lead the fight to beat back the lionfish population in Florida’s waters.

REEF says lionfish have shown up from Florida to Massachusetts. And it notes the species’ growth has been “extremely rapid and exponential.”

At the end of the day, lionfish are just one more invasive species challenge for conservationists to contend with, but with the help of spearfishers like Feeser and Bowman, they’re making a serious effort.