Lionfish hunters can bag prizes for bagging the invasive predators threatening Florida's marine ecosystem, state fishery managers decreed Wednesday.
Beginning May 14 — designated as "Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day" — the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will launch a four-and-a-half-month competition to crown the top lionfish slayers.
An invasive Pacific species, lionfish have upset the natural ecosystem on many Caribbean and Florida reefs. They breed quickly and eat voraciously. Armed with more than dozen venomous spines, lionfish apparently have no natural predators in the Atlantic Ocean.
Divers, fishermen and others who bring at least 50 lionfish to state-approved check stations by Sept. 30 qualify for the new FWC Lionfish Hall of Fame, posted online at the agency's MyFWC.com website.
"Those that remove lionfish not only get rewarded for their efforts, but they also get the experience of helping manage Florida’s fisheries," FWC Chairman Brian Yablonski said.
After Sept. 30, drawings will held to award prizes like dive equipment, fuel cards and state fishing licenses.
The most prolific lionfish hunter will be declared Florida Lionfish King or Queen. Rewards include a lifetime state fishing license and a cover photo on the FWC's 2017 guide to saltwater fishing regulations.
People certified with at least 50 harvested lionfish by late July can qualify for an allowance of one extra lobster (13 instead of 12) during this year's Lobster Sport Season on July 27 and 28.
In Florida's Panhandle area, a new pilot program will reward harvesters who catch at least 100 lionfish by May 2017 to receive a state tag for one extra red grouper or cobia in a bag limit.
FWC board members set a maximum tag allocation of 100 on red grouper, and 30 for cobia.
Lad Akins, a lionfish-removal expert with the Reef Environmental Education Foundation in Key Largo, commended the state for its incentive program for prizes.
He was less certain of providing higher bag limits for other marine species already under management.
Akins said he prefers a state program to financially support harvesters so they can build a market for lionfish filets.
"We don't know what the effects of trading one species for another down the road will be," Akins said. "It could set a precedent that leads to a less than desirable scenario."
"Say the tag system becomes wildly successful and all the [reward] gone in two months," he said. "What happens then? Will people stop harvesting lionfish, or will there be pressure for more tags?"
The fish-tag rewards only apply in seven Panhandle counties "where lionfish can be found in high densities," according to the FWC.
Florida Keys divers have been effective in slashing the numbers of lionfish at popular Keys reefs and dive sites, Akins said.
"At places where divers go, you won't see a lot of lionfish," Akins said. "The problem is that divers don't go everywhere."