They're here: Angler's surprise catch signals arrival of invasive lionfish

Surprise catch off Naples shoreline marks arrival of invasive lionfish, The question: how long have they been here and how much damage has been done?

Michael Damanski
This is the lionfish caused the commotion last week after being reeled in along the Naples shoreline.

Michael Damanski This is the lionfish caused the commotion last week after being reeled in along the Naples shoreline.

Photo with no caption
Kevin Sweeney
Reefs provide little or no protection from the lionfish, a deep-water menace to many different species of juvenile fish.

Kevin Sweeney Reefs provide little or no protection from the lionfish, a deep-water menace to many different species of juvenile fish.

While fishing in about 10 feet of water on the hard-bottom reef patches just 200 yards from shore near the Ritz Carlton, Mike Damanski confirmed the inevitable when something unexpected showed up on the end of his line.

Damanski, who was out fishing with his mom and some friends for his birthday last week, landed a "15- or 16-ounce" red lionfish. The photo soon made the rounds on Facebook, unbeknown to Damanski that it was the first documented case of the species within the state water boundary of Collier County, according to the U.S. Geological Survey's Nonindigenous Aquatic Species database.

"When I pulled the lionfish up I don't think anybody expected it," Damanski said. "I know they are destroying our reefs so we killed it and tossed it in the cooler."

Make no mistake: lionfish are pigeons with a peacock's plumage. And once they arrive, they can cause irreparable harm to the fragile underwater ecosystem. Lionfish have a voracious appetite, and will eat nearly anything that they can fit into their mouths. The fish can easily wipe out a population of juvenile fish that rely on the reef habitat for protection, and compete with native species such as snapper or the commercially crucial grouper for resources.

Bryan Fluech, director of the Collier County Sea Grant program, points out that once a population of lionfish has moved in, the existing marine life on a reef can be reduced by 80 percent in just a few weeks.

"Many species were affected, including cardinal fish, parrot fish, damselfish and others," he said. "Research in the Bahamas has documented consumption of juvenile economically important fish. Therefore, the potential to upset the natural balance of coral reef ecosystems is very real. "

It was only a matter of time before the invasive species showed up in local water. The ornately decorated fish with bright crimson stripes and long — yet venomous — pectoral and dorsal fins have long been a prized species for marine aquarium enthusiasts. However they made it from their native habitat of the Indian and South Pacific oceans to the Caribbean in the mid-1980s, there is no doubt that the lionfish have spread like a plague over the last decade.

Besides its aesthetic attributes, one thing that made the lionfish a popular aquarium species is its hardiness and ability to adapt to a variety of habitats. Reports of lionfish have now surfaced along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean as far north as Narragansett, R.I., and along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico all the way to the southernmost tip of Texas.

The Florida Keys, considered the epicenter of the invasion in North America since the first fish was reported in January 2009, has had approximately 30,000 documented cases, according to the Keys-based Reef Environmental Education Foundation. Those numbers continue to grow, although the extent of their population is difficult to gauge.

"One of our biggest concerns is how quickly they spread. When they come into an area, they take over," Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesperson Amanda Nalley said.

"One of the reasons it is difficult to estimate population numbers is because they also found in depths that are well beyond SCUBA range, which can lead to a very large underestimation of their numbers," Fluech said. "Navy submarines have reported sightings in over 500 feet. Also, because of their cryptic nature, it's hard to get an accurate count even if they are in shallow waters."

Although there have been reports of lionfish outside the state water boundary (federal water begins nine miles from the shoreline), the local waters of Collier could be especially vulnerable to the species.

Although natural structure isn't as prevalent as other points along Florida's coast, there are several hard-bottom patch reefs locally — like just off Wiggins Pass State Park — as well as artificially created reefs and other structure like discarded vessels or shipwrecks. The limited structure in local waters makes any available site prime real estate for lionfish to open a spawning ground.

"There have been confirmed reports 75 and 100 miles out. Counties further north — Lee and Charlotte for example — have had them much closer before. I wouldn't be surprised if we have had them closer, too, but they just weren't spotted," Fluech said.

"I can tell you that every dive I have done, there has been lionfish," said Bill D'Antuono, president of the Naples Spearfishing League. "This includes the Baja California wreck 60 miles offshore of Gordon's Pass, and the ledges at 30 and 15 miles."

Combined with a rapid reproduction rate and a year-round spawning season, eradicating them has proved to be a Sisyphean task anywhere the fish has been allowed to gain a foothold.

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There are several theories as to why the lionfish took so long to appear in the waters just off Collier County.

One study conducted on reefs in the Caribbean by the University of Queensland in 2011 found an inverse relationship between the amount of Nassau grouper on a reef system and the prevalence of lionfish within that system. Lionfish do not have a natural predator to control the population. Southwest Florida has a large population of goliath grouper, but those familiar with the local grouper and lionfish populations say the goliaths haven't seemed to develop a taste for lionfish.

"Lionfish have been reported in the stomachs of large grouper, but laboratory behavioral experiments suggest that grouper actively avoid lionfish," Fluech said.

The most likely explanation for why it's taken so long for lionfish to surface locally is the same reason future attempts at their removal will be a challenge: There aren't many people looking. The majority of lionfish sighting reports come from recreational divers — more specifically, spear fishermen. By law, spearfishing of any type is illegal in county waters.

Stemming from a county ordinance in 1956 intended to end the practice of gigging snook from the shoreline in shallow waters during their mating season, the law remains on the books thanks to the creation of the Fish and Wildlife Commission, which adopted the local ordinance as a "special act of local application." This means that new laws, even at the state level, do not automatically supersede the original ordinance, such as the rule enacted by the FWC in August of 2012, making lionfish an unregulated species that did not require a license to catch.

Even though FWC regulations prohibit the taking of many protected species by use of a spearing device, creating redundancy with the existing Collier law, it remains a misdemeanor to enter the water within the nine-mile boundary carrying a spear gun.

"Lionfish are not exempt from that rule," said Sgt. Dave Bruening of the Collier Sheriff Marine Bureau, adding that cases of illegal spearfishing have been rare in his six years of service.

Members of the local spearfishing community would like to see those laws changed. Since lionfish are rarely taken by hook-and-line, the only control method to be even remotely successful is spearing.

"If the county wants to change the laws, they can come to us and request to change it," Nalley said. "All they have to do is ask."

Members of the Collier County Commission did not respond to a request for an interview on the matter.

In a recent article by Mickie Anderson of the University of Florida, he found that while it is unlikely they will be completely eradicated, it may be "possible to keep them under control — in specific, targeted areas and using plenty of manpower."

Should laws be changed to allow spearfishing, or at least the taking of lionfish via specialized spears, D'Antuono feels there would be a significant increase by the local dive community to target them, perhaps even organizing "derby-style" tournaments similar to those held in the Keys.

Lionfish also make excellent table fare, and many divers may seek them out for their dinner plates.

"I think if we opened up spearing in Collier County, it would give people interested in popping a lionfish a better advantage of getting in the water and doing so," D'Antuono said. "Maybe change the rules so that you have to be on a boat and no shore spearfishing."

"It is an important issue statewide and we hope that people go out and remove as many lionfish as possible," Nalley said.

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Comments » 32

vuk writes:

Let's eat!

OP writes:

To quote REM, "it's the end of the world as we know it". And, I don't feel fine about the change.

NaplesShmaples writes:

Help end the ban of spearfishing in Collier County. Sign the petition.

ILLEGAL TO SPEAR LIONFISH. WHAT!?

https://www.change.org/petitions/coll...

erock writes:

Another absurd rule. These should be allowed to be spear-fished immediately.

Heraclitus writes:

The soft coral reef in that area is one of my favorite places to fish, but landing one of those suckers in my kayak is just a little too dangerous. No thanks. If I catch one it'll be catch and release.

vrodman writes:

in response to Heraclitus:

The soft coral reef in that area is one of my favorite places to fish, but landing one of those suckers in my kayak is just a little too dangerous. No thanks. If I catch one it'll be catch and release.

flower of womanhood...

vrodman writes:

Hey!! That's not what I said! NDN edited me. "flower of womanhood" bwaaaa haaaa haaaa!! I guess if I talk about "feminine parts" that would apply. Figure it out...

chokoluskee writes:

Lionfish & Python chowder is a treat.

concernedresident writes:

Please advise your readers that the pretty looking fish is extremely dangerous with Very Venomous spikes DO NOT TOUCH !
It is better to cut the line or use pliers to remove the hook.

They are NOT a fish to eat.

OP writes:

in response to concernedresident:

Please advise your readers that the pretty looking fish is extremely dangerous with Very Venomous spikes DO NOT TOUCH !
It is better to cut the line or use pliers to remove the hook.

They are NOT a fish to eat.

While you are correct about the danger of handling this fish, they are actually being promoted in the Keys for their food value as a way to encourage people to take them. I know that the kayak fishermen will say they don't want to attract sharks, but, for the benefit of our waters it is best to catch, kill, and release if you don't want to eat them. Please, do not just return them alive to destroy the ecology and breed more like themselves.

wolfgang1 writes:

in response to concernedresident:

Please advise your readers that the pretty looking fish is extremely dangerous with Very Venomous spikes DO NOT TOUCH !
It is better to cut the line or use pliers to remove the hook.

They are NOT a fish to eat.

You are dead wrong, pal! They are a delicious fish to eat. Other than the spines being poisonous, the meat itself is a delicacy. It's buttery smooth and tastes like Yellowtail.
I would encourage everyone to catch a boatload of these suckers, and you can watch the video at reef.org on how to filet them. Treat yourself and help our local waters!

manforpeace writes:

in response to Heraclitus:

The soft coral reef in that area is one of my favorite places to fish, but landing one of those suckers in my kayak is just a little too dangerous. No thanks. If I catch one it'll be catch and release.

Give it a whack before you release it. Take your paddle and whack it, kill it, then release it.

donsense writes:

Lion Fish Salad

Throat_Yogurt writes:

Ah crap.

upagain writes:

The list of man screwing up continues.... Asian Carp, Pythons, Lion Fish and Hiller.

NaplesFly writes:

Do we have to kill them humanely..? Like the python...kill them, by whatever means necessary....just make sure you KILL THEM...!

Hey Tom Monaghan....do something good for our local community..open up a national lion fish & python fast food chain and hire locals to farm these species.

Heraclitus writes:

in response to manforpeace:

Give it a whack before you release it. Take your paddle and whack it, kill it, then release it.

Easy to say for the man watching the man in the kayak. The paddle is 8 ft long.

I'll get a picture.

manforpeace writes:

in response to Heraclitus:

Easy to say for the man watching the man in the kayak. The paddle is 8 ft long.

I'll get a picture.

Use your tallywacker then, just kill it!
I see you don't GET the picture, so save your colorbook pictures for your Mom upstairs, and for Gods sake, take a bath, and go get a job.....

Captian_Cataracts writes:

Deport them!

Heraclitus writes:

in response to manforpeace:

Use your tallywacker then, just kill it!
I see you don't GET the picture, so save your colorbook pictures for your Mom upstairs, and for Gods sake, take a bath, and go get a job.....

Actually, you don't get the picture.

See all those little brown lizards all around you every day? All "exotics". There are bigger ones... green ones, brown ones, and black ones... anoles, monitors, dragons, geckos... all exotics. Lost cause.

Spend some time on our freshwater lakes and canals. I'll bet that 95% of the fish biomass is exotic... mostly cichlids... tilapia, cichlasoma, Mayans etc... with some pacu and plecostomus and others. That's no big deal because there is no historic freshwater ecosystem in Collier County... the whole system of lakes and canals is "exotic". They're worried about carp getting loose? Morons. The carp will eat all that hydrilla and other exotic vegetation that we spend money removing. Lost cause.

Mammals? Hogs, feral cats, dogs... just food for gators, coyotes, and pythons. Lost cause.

Snakes? I used to see coachwhips and rat snakes and scarlet kings and rattlers and indigos, etc. Now I just see black racers and little ringnecks. They're having a snake hunt in the everglades. Good luck without mechanized transportation moving through the prairies. They took a couple of big pythons when they cleared for Fiddler's Creek. That's one way to find them... bulldozers. Lost cause.

That pretty pink flowered ground cover taking over our roadsides and medians... one of the many species of Richardias... all "exotics". Melaleuca (for drying up wetlands), Brazilian Pepper (once planted as hedges), Australian Pine (sold by the Forestry Service for windbreaks), Downy Rosemyrtle, Acacias, Mimosas, Ferns... the list is too long. Lost cause.

Now we have a saltwater fish that's already out of control. Lost cause. I'll make a deal... get them to stretch snook season and size limits and I'll tow the fish to shore and throw it up on the beach. Lost cause.

But you, who, judging by your common sense, probably has maybe a grade school equivalency education, want me to beat a flapping, spiny fish to death in my kayak? Einstein was right. The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.

Heraclitus writes:

in response to Captian_Cataracts:

Deport them!

Back on the '70s I had a 75 gallon salt water tank with a lionfish and a polka dot grouper. I had other fish, but they disappeared... one by one. I was amazed at how fast the lionfish grew. I had to feed them both live goldfish. A goldfish will live for a short while in salt water... long enough. The lionfish is an absolutely beautiful fish in an aquarium.

We had a power failure one winter. They don't tolerate cold water well.

After that I went to snakeheads. They could jump out of the tank and you'd find them later and put them back and no damage done.

manforpeace writes:

in response to Heraclitus:

Actually, you don't get the picture.

See all those little brown lizards all around you every day? All "exotics". There are bigger ones... green ones, brown ones, and black ones... anoles, monitors, dragons, geckos... all exotics. Lost cause.

Spend some time on our freshwater lakes and canals. I'll bet that 95% of the fish biomass is exotic... mostly cichlids... tilapia, cichlasoma, Mayans etc... with some pacu and plecostomus and others. That's no big deal because there is no historic freshwater ecosystem in Collier County... the whole system of lakes and canals is "exotic". They're worried about carp getting loose? Morons. The carp will eat all that hydrilla and other exotic vegetation that we spend money removing. Lost cause.

Mammals? Hogs, feral cats, dogs... just food for gators, coyotes, and pythons. Lost cause.

Snakes? I used to see coachwhips and rat snakes and scarlet kings and rattlers and indigos, etc. Now I just see black racers and little ringnecks. They're having a snake hunt in the everglades. Good luck without mechanized transportation moving through the prairies. They took a couple of big pythons when they cleared for Fiddler's Creek. That's one way to find them... bulldozers. Lost cause.

That pretty pink flowered ground cover taking over our roadsides and medians... one of the many species of Richardias... all "exotics". Melaleuca (for drying up wetlands), Brazilian Pepper (once planted as hedges), Australian Pine (sold by the Forestry Service for windbreaks), Downy Rosemyrtle, Acacias, Mimosas, Ferns... the list is too long. Lost cause.

Now we have a saltwater fish that's already out of control. Lost cause. I'll make a deal... get them to stretch snook season and size limits and I'll tow the fish to shore and throw it up on the beach. Lost cause.

But you, who, judging by your common sense, probably has maybe a grade school equivalency education, want me to beat a flapping, spiny fish to death in my kayak? Einstein was right. The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.

Do it outside your little Kayak, not in. Not sure what Einstein would think of those spiney fish in a Kayak, would be funny tho. But please nevermind.. Hate to see you get all worked up over this.
Everytime I see you goofs paddling by I chuckle, not sure why. You the same folks with those funny spandex shorts riding your bikes, think those guys are funny too. Always wonder if they are the same folks. Are you?

eagle1610 writes:

in response to Heraclitus:

The soft coral reef in that area is one of my favorite places to fish, but landing one of those suckers in my kayak is just a little too dangerous. No thanks. If I catch one it'll be catch and release.

Use your pliers and cut off the head

Heraclitus writes:

in response to eagle1610:

Use your pliers and cut off the head

The pliers are for cutting line and wire. Take a good look at the picture above. Those spines are tipped in poison, and there's a lot of them in all directions. I know because I've kept lionfish.

When you're in a kayak, you treat all caught fish with respect, especially catfish, and they only have two big barbs. I'm not about to carry a lionfish killing tool in a kayak on the off chance I'll catch one. You can grab a wiggling fish with your pliers and still get hit with barbs. I need two good hands to paddle home.

If the one I release is the domino that brings down the saltwater ecosystem of Florida, they can hunt me down and sue me. If I ever post a picture of one on this site, you'll know it's still out there for someone else to kill. Good luck and be careful. Take another look at the picture.

Heraclitus writes:

in response to manforpeace:

Do it outside your little Kayak, not in. Not sure what Einstein would think of those spiney fish in a Kayak, would be funny tho. But please nevermind.. Hate to see you get all worked up over this.
Everytime I see you goofs paddling by I chuckle, not sure why. You the same folks with those funny spandex shorts riding your bikes, think those guys are funny too. Always wonder if they are the same folks. Are you?

Think logistics... hard to do it outside the kayak when you're half a mile offshore.

Not worked up... I don't intend trying to kill one... too dangerous in a small space.

I cycle (mountain bike) a couple of times a week. I row, or I canoe, or I kayak a couple of times a week. I've done more than a few Great Dock races, the Imperial River race, the Estero River race. triathlons, bike races, etc. I've paddled every small body of water from the Mound House to the Turner River, and quite a few others, with others or by myself. I never get lost. I'd rather exercise outdoors than indoors. Life is too short to spend any part in a box. Sometimes I paddle, sometimes I fish, sometimes I take pictures. It's all good.

wentfishn writes:

Just too many s----- people down here, all I can say.

neoconnot writes:

in response to Heraclitus:

The soft coral reef in that area is one of my favorite places to fish, but landing one of those suckers in my kayak is just a little too dangerous. No thanks. If I catch one it'll be catch and release.

Are you the evolutionist still looking for those intermediate species? Maybe they were in your fish tank when you were a child...keep searching and maybe say a prayer or two.

Heraclitus writes:

in response to neoconnot:

Are you the evolutionist still looking for those intermediate species? Maybe they were in your fish tank when you were a child...keep searching and maybe say a prayer or two.

I'll pray for enlightenment... for both of us.

Heraclitus writes:

in response to neoconnot:

Are you the evolutionist still looking for those intermediate species? Maybe they were in your fish tank when you were a child...keep searching and maybe say a prayer or two.

Wow! ... prayer relly works... here's a list of intermediate species found to date:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_...

Thanks, God.

neoconnot writes:

in response to Heraclitus:

Wow! ... prayer relly works... here's a list of intermediate species found to date:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_...

Thanks, God.

Great source. Free thinkers such as you love it. Hogwash.

Heraclitus writes:

in response to neoconnot:

Great source. Free thinkers such as you love it. Hogwash.

Not hogwash at all... the lists of cetacean and equine ancestors should give even the most ardent YEC pause.

Fact is that the list is constantly growing. Your children and their children will agree with the words of Pat Robertson and accept Science. It is inexorable.

Heraclitus writes:

in response to neoconnot:

Great source. Free thinkers such as you love it. Hogwash.

If you don't like the Wiki version, then how about this article from Indiana University?

http://www.indiana.edu/~ensiweb/lesso...

or this from Tufts:

http://chem.tufts.edu/science/evoluti...

or this from the National Center for Science Education:

http://ncse.com/book/export/html/1764

I reference Wiki because it's just easier for people like you to read.

P.S. What's a "Free Thinker"?

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