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Hunt lionfish this mini-season, save reefs, keep more lobster

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The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is allowing divers to bring home an extra lobster per day during the state’s upcoming 2015 spiny lobster mini-season. The only stipulation, divers must also have harvested 10 or more lionfish on the same day.

“Opportunities like this are a great way to get divers who are already in the water accustomed to removing lionfish,” said FWC Commissioner Brian Yablonski. “Our hope is that once lobster divers realize how easy it is to remove lionfish, they will continue to do so throughout the regular lobster season and beyond.”

Reef fish populations dwindle vastly with the presence of lionfish, which is one of the main reasons the FWC wants lionfish numbers controlled. A study published by Oregon State University in 2010 contends that a single lionfish, located on a reef, reduced young juvenile reef fish populations by 79 percent. This is a troubling number, as coral reefs are an integral part of maintaining healthy oceans. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), reefs occupy less than 0.1 percent of the world’s ocean surface, but provide a home for at least 25 percent of all marine species. And the 150 mile-long Florida Reef Tract, which extends from Soldier Key, located in Biscayne Bay, to the Tortugas Banks, is world’s third largest.

Invasive lionfish aren’t good for business either. NOAA estimates that coral reef activities in Martin, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties generate $3.4 billion in sales and income annually, while also accounting for 36,000 jobs each year. If lionfish populations grow large enough to considerably diminish local reef fish populations, the reefs themselves, which thrive on species diversity, will too diminish. And the dominoes that will fall following that scenario would effect the entire state’s wallet.

However, the FWC, by encouraging lionfish harvesting, is at least taking steps in the right direction.

A study published in 2006 by Biological Invasions, a peer-reviewed journal that publishes research and synthesis papers on patterns and processes related to biological invasions, found that “rigorous and repeated removal of lionfish from invaded waters” could potentially control unwanted lionfish populations. A 2011 study in the same journal showed that effective lionfish maintenance would require harvesting at least 27 percent of an area’s adult lionfish population each month.

These invasive lionfish owe much of their success to the roughly 18 venomous spines that decorate their bodies — the spines and the fact that they have no natural predators in their invaded territories. The venom in these spines can cause harsh pain, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, fever, shortness of breath and a whole host of other symptoms in humans, including temporary paralysis, heart failure and death.

Many believe that the lionfish population boom throughout Florida over the past 25-or-so years was the result of exotic salt-water fish tanks being dumped into the Caribbean, Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico — either intentionally or unintentionally.

If you’re trying to contribute to your area’s 27 percent July lionfish harvest rate, and want to grab your extra lobster on the way, here’s what you need to know: Your 10 lionfish must be caught before you grab your extra lobster and kept on-board your vessel as “proof of harvest.” Once off the water, a photo of yourself with your 10 lionfish must be kept to document your eligibility for taking the extra bug. And the lionfish must be harvested on the same day as the extra lobster.

Also,  people can take a photo of their lionfish and lobster catch during the two-day mini-season and post it on the Reef Rangers Facebook page to get a “Be the Predator” T-shirt. One of the photo entrants will also win a lifetime saltwater fishing license from a drawing to be held shortly after mini-season.

The two-day spiny lobster recreational mini-season falls on the last Wednesday and Thursday of this month, July 29 and 30. During the two-day season, the regular bag limit is six spiny lobster in the state and federal waters of Biscayne National Park and Monroe County. Twelve spiny lobster per day are permitted everywhere else where spear fishing is permitted throughout Florida waters.

There’s no bag limit on lionfish, which are most active during the morning, between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. They like to feed around some sort of structure, especially reefs and porous rock.

You can help the FWC by reporting all lionfish catches and sightings to the Report Florida Lionfish app, or to MyFWC.com/Lionfish.

If the lionfish harvest program is successful, it could be continued in future years.

Devon Crumpacker is a Tampa Bay based writer and reporter for Extensive Enterprises Media. He primarily covers Pinellas County politics for SaintPetersblog.com, but also makes time to write the occasional bar review for FloridaBarTab.com. He lives in St. Petersburg with his fiance, Sydney. To contact, e-mail devon@floridapolitics.com, or visit his Twitter page @DevonCrumpacker.

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