Why Lionfish Are Targeted Underwater And Online

Sep 2, 2014

Lionfish are beautiful, but they are becoming a menace along South Florida reefs.
Credit NOAA's National Ocean Service/Flickr

If they weren't such a pest you could almost pity the lionfish.

The creature, after all, is simply doing what it is biologically programmed to do: eat and reproduce. Unfortunately, it has made its way to the reefs off South Florida where it doesn't have natural predators.

So the lovely lionfish has become a menace.

They eat juvenile saltwater species that are commercially and biologically important, like lobster, crab, snapper and grouper. And they eat herbivores like wrasse that help limit algae growth on reefs.

Scientists are still exploring exactly how effective a predator the lionfish are, but they seem to be extremely effective.

In order to help track and contain the lionfish outbreak, state and federal conservation managers have turned to the public for help. Earlier this year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission unveiled a smartphone app to report lionfish sightings.

And the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary encourages the taking of lionfish, even within the sanctuary protected areas where normally no fishing is allowed. They just require that you take a class and get a permit to get them by net or "slurp gun" -- you don't want to touch a lionfish like you would have to with a regular spear gun because those pretty points are venomous.

"You don't want it to slide down your pole spear and whack you in the hand," says Sean Morton, sanctuary superintendent.

Morton said people are doing a good job along the heavily used Keys reefs.

"Anecdotally, you really aren’t seeing a lot of lionfish out there because certainly in the popular dive spots folks have been doing a great job just cleaning them up," he says.

The sanctuary also encourages lionfish "derbies" like the upcoming Key Largo event sponsored by the conservation group REEF. That event culminates Sept. 13 with scoring, demonstrations and lionfish tastings that are open to the public.