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Lionfish tagging, hunting pythons, designating reefs: bills pass House committee

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If anyone has ever tried to insert a passive integration transponder tag into a lionfish, they may have an idea of how seriously the Florida House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee is viewing control of invasive species.

Under House Bill 587, lionfish become one of three invasive species animals, along with python snakes and tegu lizards, the state would seek to better control through a pilot project that includes state-sponsored hunting and fishing, and the requirement that pet shop owners tag any of the animals they sell.

“The problem is with lionfish, it’s really difficult to do. You’re going to have to tag them. This will perhaps essentially hinder them [pets hops] from selling this invasive species,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican state Rep. Halsey Beshears of Monticello.

“So the elephant in the room question is: why are we selling invasive species?” asked Republican state Rep. Rick Roth of Loxahatchee.

“That’s a fantastic question indeed. I would ask you the same,” Beshears replied.

While Florida’s efforts to control pythons and tegu lizards are well-known, long-standing, and likely to use most of the $300,000 this bill would set aside for invasive species hunts, lionfish, native to Pacific Ocean coral reefs, are a different challenge altogether. Once released from someone’s aquarium, lionfish tend to make their way to the Great Florida Reef, where they attack and decimate native species of fish.

Republican state Rep. Holly Raschein, whose Key Largo-based district includes much of the Great Florida Reef as well as much of the Everglades, where the pythons and tegus are multiplying, called the bill “incredible.”

“As you all know, District 120 is like ground zero when it comes to the invasion of these exotic species. I’d like to see us go even further,” she said.

HB 587 was one of two bills considered and unanimously approved by the Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Committee Monday that would potentially help the Great Florida Reef ecosystem.

House Bill 1143 would create the largely on-paper-only Southeast Florida Coral Reef Ecosystem Conservation Area, designating a geographic box around the north portion of the Great Florida Reef as a conservation zone.

This would allow for authorities to apply for and receive state and federal grants for specific research and protection programs for the reef, which has been undergoing significant degradation in recent years, said Chair Ben Albritton, the Wauchula Republican who presented HB 1143 on behalf of Democratic state Rep. Kristin Jacobs of Coconut Creek, who was unable to attend.

“A serious coral epidemic began in 2014 and is continuing to spread along the world-famous Florida reef track from the Dry Tortugas north to Martin County,” Albritton said.

“In the last two years, 21 of the 35 coral species off our southeaster coastline have died,” Albritton continued. “The intent of the bill is to create a box of the north Florida Reef track and bracket the area for water quality monitoring.”

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected]

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