Invasive lionfish rounded up off Pinellas coast

— In an effort to fend off the invasion of a foreign species, the first local lionfish roundup on Saturday netted 64 of the venomous, fast-reproducing and aggressive eaters in the Gulf of Mexico just off Pinellas County.

While windy conditions hampered the efforts of 89 divers, most of the lionfish were found 40 to 45 miles off the coast, said Heyward Mathews, founder of the nonprofit Reef Monitoring Inc.

“The 64 is low for most reef areas south of us and up in the Panhandle of Florida,” he said. “We were not expecting large numbers at this time; we were being proactive in having the roundup now.

“They are very abundant off the shore of Pinellas in 110-plus feet of water. So, it is just a matter of time before they move inshore in greater numbers. We realize we can’t eradicate them all. Our only hope is to control them to minimize the damage they do to our native fish species.”

Nine marine biologists from St. Petersburg College were on hand Saturday to dissect the lionfish and remove the contents of their stomachs so they can be examined in a laboratory to determine what the marine predators are eating.

“We will know more about their eating habits in a few days,” said Mathews, a retired professor of oceanography at the college. His corporation, Reef Monitoring Inc., is dedicated to researching and teaching about Florida’s natural and artificial reef systems.

Lionfish reportedly can eat a fish as large as a 20-pound grouper, he said, and their stomachs can expand more than 30 times in volume.

“In one area of the Caribbean, they devoured most all of the parrotfish. Parrotfish are important to the ecology because they feed on algae. Now there’s a larger amount of algae growing on the reefs. They are damaging the ecological environment.”

Lionfish eat more than 70 species of fish, according to the Florida Keys-based Reef Environmental Education Foundation.

Lionfish especially are dangerous to marine ecosystems, Mathews said, because fish in the Gulf of Mexico lack a natural instinct to stay away from them. Lionfish grow to about 15 inches long but appear larger because of the 18 venomous spines that fan out from their body and are used in self-defense.

“The spines bristle out like a porcupine,” said Mathews. “They have been known to be aggressive and charge with their spines.”

The venom found in the needle-sharp spines isn’t deadly to people but will cause intense pain, swelling and, in some instances, blistering and infection if not treated properly, Mathews said.

Native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, lionfish first were reported off Florida’s Atlantic Coast near Dania Beach in 1985, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“We do not know for sure how the first release into our waters occurred, but we do know the invasion began with only a handful of fish,” Mathews said.

According to the state wildlife agency, lionfish began to show up on both sides of the Florida Peninsula in the early to mid-1990s. Since the mid-2000s, lionfish reports have increased rapidly. As of 2010, they had begun showing up in the northern Gulf of Mexico off Pensacola and Apalachicola.

Mathews said lionfish are known to be abundant near the natural gas pipeline site about 11 miles off the Pinellas coast.

“It’s just a matter of time before they move closer to the shoreline,” he said. “There’ve been some reports that lionfish have been spotted in mangroves south of Pinellas, but so far most of them (off this county) are in the open waters,” he said.

Lionfish have a unique way of spawning. Females release two gelatinous egg masses of about 12,000 to 15,000 eggs each, Mathews explained. Those masses float and can drift for about 25 days. Lionfish can spawn every four days in warmer climates.

While it isn’t standard restaurant seafood fare like grouper, mahi mahi or tuna, lionfish is appearing on menus at restaurants in the Florida Keys, he said.

“I haven’t tried it myself, but I hear it’s becoming a popular dish.”

One Florida Keys commercial fisherman reportedly harvested 7,000 pounds of lionfish during last year’s lobster season, 10,000 pounds the prior season and 6,000 pounds two seasons ago. He sold his catch to restaurants and fish houses.

To help combat the lionfish threat, state wildlife officials have been working with the Florida Legislature on a bill supporting initiatives to prohibit importing and farming lionfish. They’re commonly sold through the aquarium trade.

In addition, the legislation would streamline the permitting process for lionfish tournaments. The proposed rule would allow the wildlife commission to issue permits to spearfish in areas where it’s prohibited. The bill will be brought back to the agency at its June meeting in Fort Myers for final approval.

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