Local diver spears lionfish; biologists say they’re here to stay

2011-08-30 07:48:42

DESTIN – Jeff Petresky and his wife, Heather, were about to head for the surface after diving on a reef south of the Destin East Pass on Sunday when Heather spotted something weird.

“She was waving her flashlight at me, then down on the reef,” Jeff said. “I swam over and saw what she was shining her flashlight on.”

It was an alien invader – a lionfish.

So Jeff did what biologists hope qualified divers will do: He stuck his spear into the ledge where the fish was hiding and skewered it.

•Report a lionfish. »

•USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species map. »

“It’s still sitting in a Zip-Loc bag in my fridge,” said Jeff, who lives in Shalimar. “I reported it. I’m just hanging on to it to see if anybody wants it.”

Trust us, nobody wants it – at least not out of the Zip-Loc bag. The lionfish is native to the Pacific and Indian oceans but scientists believe it was released into Florida waters a few years ago by aquarium owners and breeders.

Since then the fish has spread to Caribbean and American waters, traveling as far north as Long Island.

Martha Bademan, a biologist with the Division of Marine Fisheries, says it wasn’t seen in Northwest Florida waters until a year or two ago.

“Just in the last two years sightings have increased all over Florida,” said Bademan, who added the fish are here to stay.

“We might be able to keep some localized populations in check, but they’re still going to be there. They’re very capable of dispersing.”

What’s so bad about the lionfish? Biologist say they eat and outcompete native species.

An Oregon State University study conducted in the Caribbean a few years ago found that lionfish reduced the populations of juvenile native fish by as much as 80 percent in a short period of time.

“These fish are having some effect on the ecosystem,” said Pam Schofield with the U.S. Geological Survey. “They may be competing with native snappers and groupers. We need to do some really good scientific studies” on the issue of fish populations and how they’re affected by lionfish.

Worse, they can deliver a nasty sting via spines in their fins. Jenny Tinnell, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said they should be handled with extreme care.

“If they (divers) have a (fishing) license, we do encourage them to take them,” she said of the fish. “But be careful.”

If all that weren’t bad enough, Bademan says there’s a chance swimmers might have to deal with them. “In Southeast Florida they’re seeing them in intercoastal waters.”

Can there be an upside? If properly cooked they’re said to be tasty. But Jeff Petresky said the fish he speared didn’t have enough meat on it to be worth the bother.

“They’re about the size of a pinfish. They look big but the actual fish itself is not that big.”

So this small, tough, venomous glutton of a fish is in Northwest Florida waters. What to do now?

If you’re qualified, spear them. If not, report them to the USGS.

And keep your eyes peeled. As Bademan warned, “I don’t think they’re ever going to go away.”

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