Action News Investigates Lionfish Epidemic


UNF Associate Professor Eric Johnson talks about lionfish
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Divers off the coast of Jacksonville are referring to the growing lionfish population as an epidemic. They say it could have a major impact on the local fishing industry.

Action News joined a team of divers with TISIRI, an organization that creates and protects reefs off Jacksonville's coast. The first dive took place more than 20 miles off the coast at a wreckage site know as "The Spike."

The six-person group dived nearly 100 feet below the surface in search of lionfish.

We asked TISIRI Executive Director Joe Kistel why his team wants to spread the word about lionfish.

"Because it is an epidemic, it's a problem," Kistel said. "Our goal is to go down with the camera equipment and to bring that footage back up to show everybody how many of these fish are here."

The divers also captured and brought back some live fish.

The goal is both research and eradication. There is fear lionfish will harm our local fishing industry.

"The population just exponentially keeps growing and as they do that they just keep eating and consuming more and more resources," Kistel said.

Kistel and his team fear lionfish prey on a variety of young species of fish like grouper and red snapper. They said lionfish eat the food sources for other fish as well.

"We have a lot of industry that depends on fishing," Kistel said. "The problem is most of these guys are rod-and-reel fishing. They're not actually in the water. It's the divers that are actually seeing the amounts of these fish that are down there."

Diving for lionfish must be done carefully. The fish have sharp barbs on some fins that can cause excruciating pain.

Six divers collected more than 100 lionfish at three locations. They brought the live ones back to a lab at the University of North Florida.

UNF Assistant Professor of Biology Eric Johnson is trying to figure out what lionfish are eating locally, AND how fast they grow. 

"The idea here is that we're filling a key information gap in hard-bottom habitats and artificial reefs off our shores whereas most of the research is focused throughout the Caribbean and on coral reef ecosystems," said Johnson.

Studies indicate lionfish were introduced to the Atlantic Ocean by people who were keeping the fish as pets.

"The animal got too large for the tank, was eating the other fish and they simply released them into the water. It likely occurred somewhere just north of Miami in the mid 1980s," Johnson said.

An annual lionfish tournament hopes to reduce the population of this invasive species. This year, fishermen in northeast Florida caught 2,068 lionfish.  Last year, they caught 543.