ASA Sponsors the 2018 Lionfish Challenge

Invasive species, from aquatic plants to mussels, are an increasing concern for our fisheries and their associated habitat. In the state of Florida, infamous for its non-native inhabitants that thrive under the mild climate and favorable conditions, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) devotes considerable resources to invasive control and is continually looking for new options for long-term maintenance and eradication of invasives.

Lionfish were first introduced in the state in the mid-2000’s, most likely by an aquarist who emptied their aquarium off the south Florida coast. Since that time, populations have grown exponentially and the species is now found up the US Atlantic coast to Massachusetts and across the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. Native to the Indo-Pacific, these voracious predators are extremely fertile, releasing 30,000 eggs per spawn. Lionfish easily adapt to extreme environments and have been found at depths exceeding 1000’ and at water temperatures below 50 degrees. They have even been known to survive in freshwater rivers. These fearless fish have protective poisonous spines that deliver painful stings to predators and are typically associated with structures; artificial reefs are a popular habitat. Spearfishing is the most effective harvest method, as the fish do not flinch when approached. Species-specific trap options are also being explored to control deeper dwelling individuals.

The situation was bleak. However, the FWC with the support of its partners, including ASA, has employed many innovative approaches to control lionfish populations and has begun to make a noticeable impact on their numbers. Areas that were once overrun with lionfish are now lionfish-free as a result of regular removal efforts. Each May, Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day, sponsored by ASA, kicks off a summer-long series of lionfish derbies that reward the harvest of thousands of these fish. This year, ASA is a proud sponsor of the agency’s newest lionfish removal incentive program, the 2018 Lionfish Challenge. This tournament will provide cash rewards of up to $5,000 and other prizes to registered participants that harvest specially tagged lionfish placed at reef structures around Florida. The tournament will not only encourage and promote lionfish removal but will provide an opportunity for the agency to track removals and populations to improve control efforts in the future.

Other efforts by FWC to control populations include removing barriers to harvest-no fishing license is required-and promoting consumption of the delicious, buttery, white-fleshed fish. In addition, the Reef Rangers program encourages spearfishers to “adopt a reef” and remove lionfish from their designated area on a regular basis.

While eradication of this invasive is unlikely due to the adaptability and prolific nature of these fish, through FWC’s efforts and sponsor support, lionfish are being controlled to minimize harmful impacts to our fisheries.