Florida bills propose teams of lionfish hunters

Rachel Bowman, a commercial diver from Marathon, uses the Zookeeper to catch lionfish. She can net 80 pounds of lionfish in one day with the device.
Rachel Bowman, a commercial diver from Marathon, uses the Zookeeper to catch lionfish. She can net 80 pounds of lionfish in one day with the device.

It’s been said lionfish will never be eradicated from Florida waters, but state lawmakers say there needs to be an attempt.

That’s the idea behind matching state House and Senate bills gaining steam in Tallahassee. SB 230 and HB 587 propose $600,000 over two years for the state Department of Environmental Protection to establish a pilot program to try to minimize their threat to the environment. It would “examine the benefits of using strategically deployed, trained private contractors to slow the advance of nonnative animals” including lionfish and tegu lizards.

Lionfish are a Pacific Ocean fish that seems to have no natural predators in the Atlantic Ocean, largely due to their array of venomous spines. Lionfish eat voraciously and breed constantly, threatening local fish species. Tegus can grow to 4 feet long and may lay three dozen eggs annually.

Lad Akins, director of special projects for the Key Largo-based Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), said the eradication of lionfish is “just not feasible or attainable.”

“I think for certain organisms there is some potential benefit, but including lionfish in this mix is not realistic,” he said.

Miami state Sen. Frank Artiles (R), who represents the Keys, filed Senate Bill 230 and told the Keynoter the reason for the bill is to show the federal government there is a “serious issue” in the state with more nonnative species than just lionfish.

He pointed to the threat of invasive Burmese pythons suspected of devastating the mammal populations of Everglades National Park. If pythons were part of the bill, Akins said having a removal team to address them would make sense.

“But to think this is going to solve a problem for something already well-established is not reasonable,” he said.

Artiles said the pilot program will see what professional teams can do year-round to put a dent in the population of lionfish and tegu lizards on top of the hundreds of people in Florida already harvesting lionfish commercially or for sport.

From now through September, there are 18 derbies throughout Florida where divers and snorkelers compete to bring in the most lionfish for cash prizes.

Rachel Bowman is a commercial diver from Marathon who has been honored by the state as a top lionfish harvester. She’s made a career out of hunting the spiny predators and believes a pilot program could help lessen the population. Bowman said her brother-in-law Ritchie Stiglitz, a commercial lobster fisherman, brought in 6,000 pounds of lionfish from his traps near the Dry Tortugas from December to late March.

“Those traps are at depths of 200 to 300 feet, depths that commercial divers can’t get to,” she said, adding it would help if traps could be in the water longer than the lobster season, which runs from Aug. 6 to March 31. “We can’t eradicate lionfish, but we can keep the population to a manageable number.”

SB 230 is now in the Senate Committee on Appropriations after moving through two environmental subcommittees with unanimous approval. HB 587 is in the House Government Accountability Committee.

REEF is holding a series of free lionfish workshops on Saturdays throughout the Keys. Collection dives will follow but space is limited. They will be on:

▪ April 22 and May 13 from 9 to 11:30 a.m. at the Florida Keys Eco Discovery Center at the Truman Waterfront, at the end of Southard Street in Key West. The April 22 dive boat is already booked full. The May 13 dive will follow at 1:30 p.m. at the Captain’s Corner Diver Center, 125 Ann St., Key West.

▪ April 29 from 9 to 11:30 a.m. at Aquarium Encounters, 11710 Overseas Highway, Marathon. A dive will follow at 1 p.m. afrom Dive Duck Key, 61 Hawks Cay Blvd., Marathon.

▪ May 20 from 9 to 11:30 a.m. at the Big Pine Key library, 213 Key Deer Blvd., Big Pine Key. The dive boat is full.

▪ June 3 from 9 to 11:30 a.m. at REEF headquarters, 98300 Overseas Hwy, Key Largo. The dive boat is full.

Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219