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(News-Press.com) - State wildlife officials are expanding efforts to combat the spread of exotic lionfish but may be missing out on a crucial species control tool: the bellies of residents and visitors.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission met in Fort Myers on Wednesday to relax spearfishing and diving regulations for these venomous invasives, which are increasingly plaguing reefs around the state. Commissioners voted to allow the use of rebreathers (which allow divers to dive deeper for longer and with fewer bubbles) and to issue permits for spearfishing tournaments in preserves and other places where fishing is typically off limits.

The state is also in the process of prohibiting live importation of lionfish and their use in aquaculture, which may be voted on later this year. Those moves may sound logical, but T.J. Marshall with the Ocean Conservancy urged FWC to create a partnership with the Florida Department of Agriculture and build a market for the lionfish, both in restaurants and grocery stores.

Banning live importation and aquaculture use could be a mistake, Marshall said.

"I talked directly with the chefs (at a state convention) and they said, 'Look, if I don't know I can go to this place and get the supply.' It becomes too difficult to manage," Marshall said. "They can't get a consistent supply of the lionfish, so in other words, there hasn't been a market created."

Lionfish compete with and prey upon native species and can eliminate certain species on reefs. They can even destroy a reef if they wipe out species that are critical to the health of organisms there.

Melissa Recks, FWC section leader, said the state wants to help create demand for the fish while at the same time controlling the distribution and concentration of lionfish in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.

"We want to stop additional lionfish from entering Florida waters," Rocks said. "We feel like we can improve and strengthen the regulations by prohibiting live importation of lionfish and aquaculture."

Restricting the possession, transportation and commercial sale of exotic species is nothing new in Florida. FWC and other agencies have spent decades combating everything from tiny shellfish to massive Burmese pythons.

Lionfish may require a different strategy, Marshall said, especially if one of the control mechanisms is the sea food industry.

"There needs to be some type of incentive so the commercial fisherman sees the market," Marshall said. "If you can get a commercial processing house where they process the fillets and the restaurants wouldn't have to deal with it, you would see a lot more demand."

Jerry Sansom of Coco Beach suggested the state market lionfish as it does citrus and other foods. The system he described is more like a bounty — a price the state would pay to control the fish.

"In the not too distant future, you will need to develop a removal program on a lot of your hard bottom, particularly in the Gulf, if you want to maintain species variety on these reefs," Sansom said. "It's not unlike what we had to do in Lake Okeechobee years ago to remove excess trash fish."

Eradicating the species from Florida waters is unlikely. FWC lists the first reported lionfish in Dania Beach in 1985. The fish — two species from the Pacific and Indian Oceans — have since spread to every coastal area in the state.

Lionfish were recently reported in area tidewater creeks, and FWC confirmed in recent weeks that they are being reported in estuaries, possibly even freshwater systems.

A $50 commercial license is needed to sell lionfish to markets or restaurants.

Pterois volitans and Pterois miles

  • Appearance: Zebra-like with red, white and brown stripes. Measure 12 to 15 inches in length in Indo-Pacific, although they can grow larger outside its natural range.
  • Habitat: Found in coastal creeks, rivers, bays, and in reefs hundreds of feet deep.
  • Range: Native to Indo-Pacific oceans but are now established in Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
  • Reproduction: Males mature at 4 inches, females at 7 inches and are capable of reproducing less than a year from birth. Females release two gelatinous masses containing 12,000 to 15,000 eggs, which hatch after about 25 days.
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