Written By: Laura Tiu, Holden Harris, and Alexander Fogg
Non-containment lionfish traps being tested by the University of Florida offshore Destin, FL. Invasive lionfish are attracted to the lattice structure, then captured by netting when the trap is pulled from the sea floor. The trap may have the potential to control lionfish densities at depths not accessible by SCUBA divers. [ALEX FOGG/CONTRIBUTED PHOTO]
It’s early morning as Dreadknot Charters speeds out of Destin Harbor towards the offshore reefs in the Gulf of Mexico. Researchers Holden Harris (Graduate Research Fellow, University of Florida), Alex Fogg, (Marine Resource Coordinator, Okaloosa County), and the Dreadknot crew, Josh and Joe Livingston, ready their equipment on board. They’re working on a new method of capturing invasive lionfish: deepwater traps.
Red lionfish (Pterois volitas / P. miles) are a popular aquarium fish with striking red and white strips and graceful, butterfly-like fins. Native to the Indo-Pacific region, lionfish were introduced into the wild in the mid-1980s, likely from the release of pet lionfish into the coastal waters of SE Florida. In the early 2000s lionfish spread throughout the US eastern seaboard and into the Caribbean, before reaching the northern Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Today, lionfish densities in the northern Gulf are higher than anywhere else in their invaded range.
Invasive lionfish negatively affect native reef communities. They consume and compete with native reef fish, including economically important snappers and groupers. Their presence has shown to drive declines in native species and diversity. Lionfish possess 18 venomous spines that appear to deter native predators. The interaction of invasive lionfish with other reef stressors – including ocean acidification, overfishing, and pollution – is of concern to scientists.
Lionfish harvest by recreational and commercial divers is currently the best means of controlling their densities and minimizing their ecological impacts. Lionfish specific spearfishing tournaments have proven successful in removing large amounts in a relatively short amount of time. This year’s Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day removed almost 15,000 lionfish from the Northwest Florida waters in just two days. Lionfish is considered to be an excellent quality seafood, and they are now being targeted by a handful of commercial divers. Several Florida restaurants, seafood markets, and grocery stores chains are now regularly serving lionfish.
While diver removals can control localized lionfish densities, the problem is that lionfish also inhabit reefs much deeper than those that can be accessed by SCUBA divers. Surveys of deepwater reefs show lionfish have higher densities and larger body sizes than lionfish on shallower reefs. In the Gulf of Mexico, the highest densities of lionfish surveyed were between 150 – 300 feet. While SCUBA diving is typically limited to less than 130 feet, lionfish have been observed deeper than 1000 feet.
For the past several years, researchers have been working to develop a trap that may be able to harvest lionfish from deep water. Dr. Steve Gittings, Chief Scientist for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has spearheaded the design for a “non-containment” lionfish trap. The design works to “bait” lionfish by offering a structure that attracts them. The trap remains open while deployed on the sea floor, allowing fish to move in and out of the trap footprint. When the trap is retrieved, a netting is pulled up around
Deep water lionfish traps being tested by the University of Florida offshore Destin, FL. [ALEX FOGG/CONTRIBUTED PHOTO]
the fish inside and they are brought to the surface.
The researchers are headed offshore to retrieve, redeploy, and collect data on the lionfish traps. Twelve non-containment traps are currently being tested offshore NW Florida. The research is supported by a grant from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The study will try to answer important questions for a new method of catching lionfish: where and how can the traps be most effective? How long should they be deployed? And, is there any bycatch (accidental catch of other species)?
Recent trials have proved successful in attracting lionfish to the trap with minimal bycatch. Continued research will hone the trap design and assess how deployment and retrieval methods may increase their effectiveness. If successful in testing, lionfish traps may become permitted for use by commercial and recreational fisherman. The traps could become a key tool in our quest to control this invasive species and may even generate income while protecting the deepwater environment.
Outreach and extension support for the UF’s lionfish trap research is provided by Florida Sea Grant. For more information contact Dr. Laura Tiu, Okaloosa and Walton Counties Sea Grant Extension Agent, at firstname.lastname@example.org / 850-689-5850 (Okaloosa) / 850-892-8172 (Walton).
In the late 1980’s a few exotic lionfish were found off the coast of Dania Florida. I do not think anyone foresaw the impact this was going to have. Producing tens of thousands of drifting eggs per female each week, they began to disperse following the Gulf Stream. First in northeast Florida, then the Carolina’s, Bermuda, the Caribbean, and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. The invasion was one of the more dramatic ones seen in nature.
The Invasive Lionfish
Lionfish are found on a variety of structures, both natural and artificial, and are known from shallow estuaries to depths of 1000 feet in the ocean. They are opportunistic feeders, engulfing whatever is within their range and fits in their mouths, and have few predators due to their neurotoxicity spines. These fish are well-designed eating machines with a high reproductive rate, and perfectly adapted to invading new territories, if they can get there.
And they got here…
Like so many other invasive species, humans brought them to our state. Some arrive intentionally, some by accident, but we brought them. Lionfish came to Florida intentionally as an aquarium fish. Beautiful and exotic, they are popular at both public aquariums and with hobbyists… Then they escaped.
So what now?
What impact will these opportunistic fish have on the local environment? On the local economy?
This is, in essence, the definition of an invasive species. The potential for a negative impact on either the ecosystem or local fishing is there. We now know they are found on many local reefs, in many cases the dominant fish in the community. We know they can produce an average of 25,000 fertilized per female per week and breed most of the year. We also know they consume a variety of reef fish, about 70 species have been reported from their stomachs.
Over 70 species of small reef fish have been found in the stomachs of lionfish; including red snapper. Photo: Bryan Clark
However, what impact is this having on local fisheries?
Well, we do know there have been more reports of fishermen catching them on hook and line. We also know that scientists are examining the DNA of their stomach content that cannot be identified visually, and some of the results indicate commercially valuable species are on the menu.
Area high school students are now conducting dissections using this same methodology. Under the direction of Dr. Jeff Eble, over 900 area high school students examined the stomach contents of local lionfish last year. Students from Escambia, Gulf Breeze, Navarre, Pensacola, Washington, and West Florida high schools – along with Woodlawn Middle School – identified 16 different species in lionfish stomachs. Of economic concern were snapper; 42% of the prey identified were Vermillion Snapper – 4% were Red Snapper.
Though the consumption of non-commercial species can affect the population of commercial ones, the direct consumption of commercial species is concerning. The commercial value of Vermillion Snapper landed in Escambia County in 2016 was about $800,000 (highest in the state).
This year two more high schools will participate in the dissection portion of this project; those being Tate and Pine Forest. These students need lionfish and we are seeking donations from local divers to help support this project. If interested in helping, please contact me at email@example.com or (850) 475-5230.
Dahl, K.A. W.F. Patterson III. 2014. Habitat-Specific Density and Diet of Rapidly Expanding Invasive Red Lionfish (Pterois volitans), Populations in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. PLOS ONE. Vol 9 (8). Pp. 13.
Most coastal residents along the panhandle are aware of the invasive lionfish and the potential impacts they could have on local fisheries and ecosystems. Since they were first detected in this area in 2010, there have been tournaments, workshops, and presentations, to help locals both learn about the animal and ways to control them. Existing non-profits have joined the fight and new non-profits have formed. In 2015 FWC and local organizations began hosting the Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day(LRAD) events. These are held the weekend after Mother’s Day. During the 2016 event in Pensacola, 8,089 lionfish were removed. In 2016 FWC introduced the Lionfish Challenge. This program began at the conclusion of the LRAD event and ran through September 30. Lionfish, or lionfish tails for those who wanted to keep the animal, could be turned into local collection sights and submitted for state awards and recognition – a Hall of Fame was created and King Lionfish. Over 16,000 lionfish were logged during this event. But has any of this helped? Are we getting control of this invasive species?
The Invasive Lionfish
Maybe… having conversations with local divers who work with researchers and remove for profit, it appears that the 2016 Pensacola LRAD may have made an impact. If you review the literature it states that to control an invasive species a minimum of 25% of the population should be removed annually. Others say you need to remove 75% and others still say it should be 25% each month. The problem here is that we do not know how many lionfish are actually out there. We know how many we are bringing in but is it enough?
One report, submitted by the non-profit REEF (from Key Largo) a few years ago, indicated they had removed about 70% of the lionfish in their area during one tournament. Based on this, the argument that tournaments are effective was supported. The recent Pensacola LRAD suggest the same. Local divers who remove lionfish with researchers, tourists, and as a commercial venture for themselves told us that their “sweet spots” – where high numbers of lionfish can be found – are not so sweet anymore. They are finding lionfish, but prior to LRAD it was not uncommon for some locations to have 50-100 lionfish around them. These same locations may yield 10-20 now. Though this information is anecdotal; it does suggest that these intensive tournaments may be having an effect on managing them. Of course a quantitative study is needed to confirm these observations, but it is encouraging none the less.
It is believed the tournaments alone will not solve the problem. With their high reproductive rates, continuous removals are needed. To encourage this divers can obtain a Saltwater Products Licensefrom FWC and sell what they catch. Some dive charters are now making it a tourism trip – “lionfish hunting”. As long as it marketed properly (as in they are not going to find tons of them – but will enjoy shooting a few) customers seem to be happy and are enjoying it. Of course they are still working on an effective trap so that non-divers can participate in control programs. It is also important to note that you should not get into a commercial venture on lionfish as your main source of income. To do so would lead to the argument “we do not want to get rid of lionfish because they are my livelihood”. The objective is to make them uncommon and reduce their impact on our marine resources.
Of course it will take time to know for sure just how effective the tournaments have been. Several will be meeting this week in Ocala to discuss the 2017 tournament season. I have written a longer update on the lionfish, which can be found at the Escambia County Extension Marine Science page.
An Update on the Lionfish Situation in the Panhandle
In the past couple of years, we have posted articles about the lionfish during NISAW week. A question we hear more now is – “how is lionfish management going?”
First, they are still here…
Wish I could say otherwise, but they are here and probably always will be. Since the time of the first sighting in 2010 their numbers have increased. In 2013 Dauphin Island Sea Lab reported densities on artificial reefs at 14.7 lionfish / 100m2; which was among the highest recorded in the western Atlantic and the time. At some point all populations reach carrying capacity and begin to level out; we do not know if this has begun to happen yet.
Scientists have suggested that effective management would require a minimum 25% of the population to be removed during removal events. We are not sure how many are out there but FWC does maintain records on how many have been removed.
In 2014 there were 28 derbies held in Florida; 10 of those in the panhandle (36%). 17,246 lionfish were removed; 8,643 (50%) were from the panhandle. This could be because of a stronger effort (we had 2 more derbies than the west coast of peninsular Florida) or we just have more lionfish here.
In 2015 there were again 28 derbies; 6 of those in the panhandle (21%). But only 10,953 lionfish were removed; 2,106 in the panhandle (19%). We did have a decrease in effort locally.
So why the decrease in effort?
Speaking with members of the Gulf Coast Lionfish Coalition – time and money. Coordinating and hosting derbies is time-consuming, and those who were volunteering their time were charter captains who forwent charters to do this… money. Everyone who has worked on lionfish since the 1980’s has commented that derbies have a lifespan. They are effective at removing large numbers of lionfish, especially if repeated often, but that they alone will not solve the problem.
So what now?
Well, here in Escambia county we are looking at the possibility of lionfish as a seafood product. At the Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day in Pensacola several local chefs’ tried different recipes with the public; one restaurant even offered smoked lionfish dip! The public seemed to like the fish but the cost of a fillet can be quite high. Publix offers a program called “Reel Variety” where you can order any fish you are interested in – lionfish is one, but the price ranges from $20-$30 / lb. Local divers in the Pensacola area are currently selling lionfish at prices bit lower but for the dip; fillets are still pricy. We will continue to experiment with this idea and see, if a low by-catch lionfish trap, can be developed and whether that will bring prices down. We are also monitoring for lionfish inside of our bays. In 2015 we can confirm two lionfish found inside Pensacola Pass in Big Lagoon; we will continue to monitor in 2016.
In Okaloosa County the Emerald Coast Reef Associationis working on a proposal that would reward those removing lionfish with permission to catch other regulated species out of season. We will see where 2016 takes us. The 2016 Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day will again be in downtown Pensacola May 14-15.
Red Lionfish are a predatory reef fish that are non-native invasive species and have spread throughout Florida Waters. They are members of the family Scorpaenidae whose members are venomous and the lionfish is no exception. This fish is relatively small ranging from 10-12 inches in length and have a zebra-like appearance with long, showy pectoral fins. They have a row of long dorsal spines that contain venom glands. Their native range is the South Pacific and Indian Oceans and preferred habitat is on offshore reef structures. These fish are considered to be voracious eaters feeding on native fish, reducing vital native populations, and competing for food with native fish such as grouper and snapper.
With few predators, these fish are thriving in Florida waters, even in the northern Gulf of Mexico. They reproduce often, under good conditions as often as every 3-4 days, with eggs hatching after about two days. They also consume a variety of local species. Research has found in some cases there has been an 80% decline in reef fish recruitment and loss of some economically important species. These fish are able to expand their stomachs for large meals and can survive starvation for over 12 weeks. Lionfish are an invasive species in our local waters and removal is encouraged.
The most effective control of this species is removal by spearfishing; though some recent reports of hook and line capture using live bait have occurred. Lionfish are cryptic and nocturnal but local divers have found them hovering near reefs at midday. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) changed regulations to increase harvesting opportunities. Such changes include no requirement for a recreational fishing license when using spearing devices (pole spear, a Hawaiian Sling, handheld net, or spearing devices marked for use on lionfish), and no recreational or commercial bag limit; though recreational fishing license is required for other fishing methods. Check the FWC regulations before fishing or diving for these species.
Lionfish are venomous, must be handled carefully, venom glands occur on the dorsal, pelvic and anal spines. Lionfish sightings can be reported at 877.786.7267, the newly released FWC lionfish app,or (if in the Pensacola area) the lionfish map. If stung the wound can be treated with warm (but not scalding) water. You may need to seek medical attention as soon as possible. Rarely are stings fatal unless the person has an allergic reaction. The Poison Help Hotline can be reached at 800.222.1222. Inshore sighting information is being collected by Florida Sea Grant in Escambia County to track the movement of these species. You can fill out the online report on the USGS website or the REEF website and stay up to date on research as it pertains to this species at the new NOAA lionfish portal and Florida Sea Grant.
For more information contact the author Rick O’Connor, UF/IFAS Escambia County Extension – Sea Grant and Marine Science Extension Agent, 850-475-5230.
Everyone knows there are “sea horses”, “sea cows”, “catfish”, and “dogfish” but a ”turkeyfish”? Is there such a thing as a “turkey fish”? Well yes there is!… its scientific name is Pterois volitans but most know it as the LIONFISH. Yep, our old friend the lionfish.
Lionfish, Photo Credit: Rebekah D. Wallace, UGA, Bugwood.org
Some of us first heard about the lionfish several years ago during trips to the Florida Keys but in recent years we are hearing about in our own local waters. Actually, some studies suggest there are more here than in the Keys. The recent red tide backs this up… we had at least 75 dead lionfish was ashore in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties; probably many more uncounted. We asked Dr. Chris Stallings of the University of South Florida whether he thought lionfish may be more susceptible to red tide toxin (brevotoxin) and he responded “probably not… you just have more lionfish in the western panhandle!”
Many of us have been hearing and reading about local lionfish since 2010 – so what is the status of this fish this Thanksgiving?
Well, they’re still here. There have been several derbies held along the panhandle over the past two years and they have removed close to 10,000 fish in Escambia County alone – but these guys breed fast and the population is still there. A few divers have obtained their salt water products license and have begun selling to local and regional restaurants. But they are having a hard time supplying fish as fast as the demand has been for them.
State and local agencies and nonprofits will continue to educate the public about the potential impacts of this invader and provide more tournaments this spring to encourage local divers to remove as many as we can. Research is ongoing for an effective, by-catch reducing, trap to be used to harvest them and Dr. Jeff Ebles with the University of West Florida will continue to survey for the fish within Pensacola Bay. All of these efforts will hopefully begin to stabilize their population growth and – eventually – a downward slide in their numbers. Until then, enjoy eating lionfish…
Hmmm… a new Thanksgiving tradition… “turkeyfish”… hmmm