Florida

Florida Fish and Wildlife proposes lionfish challenge to keep invasive species in check

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Offshore and unseen by many is a major threat to our underwater ecosystem: lionfish.

You’ve probably only seen them in the context of an aquarium, but the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is working to curb the spread of the invasive species. The state created a competition for fishermen in an effort to get rid of them. It’s called “the lionfish challenge,” and it runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

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The numbers collected off our coast are in the thousands, and that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the state but it’s needed to keep the population from doing serious damage to the local fisheries and habitat. The stockpile inside Atlantic Pro Divers’ freezer contains the spoils of a major problem: an invasive species.

The hundreds of lionfish are what UNF Professor Eric Johnson calls, “Darwin’s nightmare.” Johns is an expert in fishery science and invasive species. He says tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of lionfish are spreading into our coastal waters and wreaking havoc.

“Some of the things that our fishermen are trying to catch are directly impacted by lionfish,” Johnson said. “They also eat a lot of the smaller fish on the reef, which perform really important ecological services.”

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As a result, he says the local economy and environment suffer. So, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission created the lionfish challenge. It incentivizes local fisherman, like Renee Le Giro, to help cull lionfish numbers and keep the population in check.

“It took my breath away for a minute,” Le Giro says about her first dive spotting them, “I had to just stare… like you could have literally just taken a net and just scooped ‘em.’”

She spears the fish on dives and then turns the tails in to local dive shops, like Atlantic Pro Divers, for credit. In return, she gets prizes based on productivity, coins, a T-shirt, all the way up to a yeti cooler. Her dive group has collected more than a thousand fish already this season.

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But Johnson says lionfish are more prolific still.

“Once the sort of genies out of the bottle or the cats out of the bag,” he told Action News Jax Emily Turner, “an eradication program is very, very difficult to do, particularly for as widespread and as large an area as we’re talking.”

He says the females release up to 30,000 eggs every three to four days. Likewise, thanks to their poisonous tines, they don’t have any predators.

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But the state’s competition aims to solve that problem. Since the challenge started in 2016, local fishermen have removed more than 22,000 lionfish from Duval County’s coastline alone. More than 3,000 of those have been caught since Memorial Day this year.

YearTotal
20160
20174227
20185694
20193623
20203115
20213012
20223006*

*As of July 13, 2022 (not full year total)

Johnson says it’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to fully eradicate them, but challenges like this one help keep the population in check and make people like Renee so important.

“The water is my happy place,” Le Giro says, “and I want to keep it that way. So I kind of get rid of the nuisance. They’re beautiful, but they don’t belong here.”

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