We don’t need to pay lionfish hunters, people are already doing the job

Marathon fisherman Richie Stiglitz (right) and a worker with hundreds of lionfish caught in lobster traps.
Marathon fisherman Richie Stiglitz (right) and a worker with hundreds of lionfish caught in lobster traps.

Anyone who lives in South Florida, especially the Keys, should welcome news that the state will work to keep the threat of nonnative invasive species minimal.

However, we believe that spending $300,000 a year to pay divers to hunt for lionfish, which threaten to destroy Keys reef life with their voracious appetites and which have no known predators, is not a good a use of taxpayer money.

The reason: The people most impacted are already doing what they can do to keep lionfish in check — some even make a living at it, selling their catches to restaurants.

Two companion bills are making their way through the state Legislature, calling for $300,000 in each of the next two years to “examine the benefits of using strategically deployed, trained private contractors to slow the advance of nonnative animals” including lionfish and tegu lizards.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says “lionfish were first reported off Florida's Atlantic Coast near Dania Beach in Broward County in 1985. Beginning in 2000, the species was regularly seen off the southeast Atlantic coast of the U.S. They are now commonly found throughout the Bahamas and the Caribbean.”

They are now common throughout the Keys and are, no doubt, a threat to our economy. Without the reef and all the marine life that depends on it, our tourism economy would suffer.

However, one of the main experts on lionfish, Lad Akins of Key Largo, says paying people to hunt lionfish will do little to nothing to stem the problem. Akins, director of special projects for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, tells our Katie Atkins that “to think this is going to solve a problem for something already well-established is not reasonable.”

Some would say that at least try. We agree — and that happens all the time through what are known as lionfish derbies, essentially fishing tournaments for the invasives. People pay to enter these events; no one is paying them to participate.

The FWC keeps a master list of such derbies, and the first one this year was in February off Key Largo. Others in the Keys are approaching.

Being in the most environmentally sensitive area of the state, we always welcome any way to keep our nature natural, to keep out (or at least control) species that don’t live here. For example, we welcomed the first Python Challenge when the state issued permits to hunt and kill the Burmese pythons in certain parts of the Everglades.

But we believe the lionfish problem is not one that can be solved by throwing money to some divers. There are already divers out there doing all they can to keep lionfish in check as best they can, and not only through the derbies. As we said, lionfish are now recognized as a pretty tasty meal and have shown up on restaurant menus.

We believe the intent of the bills is laudable. But we believe the money can be better spent elsewhere to combat our nonnative species.