Growing lionfish population threatening to crowd out the native species in Florida waters

Posted at 6:53 PM, Apr 30, 2018

BONITA SPRINGS, Fla. -- There are invaders in Gulf waters, and researchers at Florida Gulf Coast University are working to find out more about them, so they can be stopped. 

Invasive exotic Lionfish are native to the Pacific Ocean. But they're now appearing more frequently in the Gulf where they have no known predators.

FGCU Marine Scientist Mike Parsons said the growing lionfish population is threatening to crowd out the native species so many Southwest Floridians love to catch and eat.

"They're competing with other fish for places to live and food to eat," Parsons said.

"So they'll be bad for other fish like grouper, for example." he added.

Parsons and other researchers are looking for solutions as they closely study lionfish at FGCU's Vester Marine Science Field station in Bonita Springs. 

Researcher Emma DeRoy said part of the problem is that lionfish can live in every part of the Gulf.

"They're habitat generalists," said DeRoy, whose work at Vester Field Station focuses on lionfish. "They'll thrive in sea grass, mangroves, corals - anything with structure."

DeRoy said lionfish also tend to eat the small fish that eat algae off coral.  If those small fish aren't around, there's nothing protecting living coral from all that algae.

"Then the algae overgrows the coral and basically suffocates it," she says.  "And then you get coral dying off."

She says lionfish also grow up faster than local species like grouper - giving them a head start on establishing themselves in a habitat and eating whatever they want. Lionfish mature within a year, whereas grouper take around 4-to-5 years, DeRoy said. 

"I think the other big factor is they re-produce so often and they produce so many eggs," Parsons said "Their population can just explode." 

Parsons estimated their reproductive rate to be astronomical.

"Somewhere on the order of 2 million eggs per female every time they spawn," says Parsons. "And they may spawn multiple times per year."

"That's a lot of youngin's," he adds.

Charter boat captain Billy D'Antuono said huge numbers of lionfish are being hauled in from the northern Gulf off the panhandle of Florida.

"They'll go and clean off a spot and get 500, and they'll go back the next week and there's 500 more," says D'Antuono.

"They're bringing back thousands of them in a day," he adds.

Some say the biggest hope for getting the lionfish population under control is human consumption.

"The one good thing is they are a delicious fish," says Parsons.

"Lion fish are just very good to eat," says D'Antuono. "You can eat it as sushi," he added.

D'Antuono is quick to point out lionfish are not poisonous - just venomous. He said that distinction matters.

"The venom is only in the spine, so the meat is very good," he says.  "It's one my favorite fish to eat."

More Florida restaurants are now selling lionfish, and more stores (Whole Foods for example) are selling it at prices that create financial incentive for the commercial fishing industry.

"It's the same level as grouper prices, $24 a pound," D'Antuono said.

D'Antuono is hoping to generate more interest in hunting lionfish by posting videos of his spearfishing adventures on his website.

As researchers look for ways to get the lionfish population under control, they're calling on you to do your part.

When Scripps station WFTX in Fort Myers asked Parsons what people should do if they see a lionfish, he response is simple but direct. "Kill it," he says.  "And then eat it. Remove it from the environment." 

D'Antuono recommended killing lionfish carefully, though, because their spines are venomous.

D'Antuono said he has been stung before and described the pain as memorable.  

"It's like someone putting a nail in your hand and somebody slamming the nail in your hand for about two hours," he says. "It's very painful."

But he said he fears the bigger pain lionfish will inflict will be on the fragile ecosystem in our Gulf. 

"They've invasive," he said. "Over the years, these fish could be the only thing left."

D'Antuono is encouraging others to join him in spearfishing lionfish. He even organizes tournaments - telling WFTX he's hoping the next one will be this summer at Three 60 Market in Naples.