JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- When scientists first began noticing lionfish gathering at Northeast Florida reefs, their first reaction was one of interest.
Soon, however, they realized just how dangerous the fish are becoming to the area.
"I don't think any of us were prepared for the explosion that occurred in the population," says Dr. Quinton White, Executive Director of the Marine Science Research Institute at Jacksonville University.
Lionfish are natives of the Indo-Pacific, but Dr. Quinton White says someone in South Florida released a few on purpose in the late 1980's.
Today, the venomous creatures are reproducing at record speeds and heading north, feeding off fish popular for human consumption. The main problem, White says, is that nothing is eating them, so their population continues to explode.
"Many of the fish that are heavily regulated because of concerns for their population are turning out to be the food source for these lionfish," says Joe Kistel, Executive Director of TISIRI, a non-profit that helps build artificial reefs off the coast.
Kistel says grouper, snapper and other fish crucial to the local commercial industry are literally disappearing. In the past year, the problem has only intensified, and most people still don't realize the threat the Northeast Florida area is facing. He says, "If something detrimental happens to the fishing industry, that has cascading effects down to the general economy."
No one knows how to stop them or the long term effects, so in March, the TISIRI organization will host the first lionfish tournament in Northeast Florida. Kistel is hoping to catch enough to make a difference. He says, "I don't know if it's realistic to think we can completely eradicate these animals. The best things we can do is be as proactive as we can."
While Dr. White thinks it might help, he says more must be done to learn about the species, to keep it from taking over waterways in Northeast Florida.
"They're going to cause problems for a long, long time. We will never get rid of them."
Kistel says the fish caught at the tournament will be turned over to the FWC for genetic testing.
While lionfish are poisonous, and will sting humans, they very rarely cause death. The irony, White says, is that lionfish are said to be delicious, so local fisherman may be able to cash in on the creature in the future.
The Northeast Florida Lionfish Blast will take place off the coast of Jacksonville and St. Augustine throughout the month of April. Registration is now open. For more information visit: http://www.tisiri.org/northeast-florida-lionfish-blast-tournament/.