“We think that this diet shift is a result of the red grouper disrupting the predatory behaviors of the lionfish, causing it to switch to more easily caught prey like cleaner shrimp,” Ellis said. Robert Ellis counts the amount and types of reef fish in a solution hole in Florida Bay.
Ellis was awarded one of the 2013 Guy Harvey Scholarships to study the relationship between red grouper and the marine community that develops around the solution holes they dig and inhabit. Solution holes provide critical habitat for spiny lobsters, juvenile reef fishes, shrimp and other organisms needing shelter.
Grouper excavate the holes by carrying away mouthfuls of sand and debris, or using tail fins to brush dirt off exposed rock. To conduct the study, Ellis monitored several solution holes, a common geologic depression on the ocean floor where limestone is exposed.
Ellis said the study also provides clues about the important yet unseen roles that native fish play in coral reef communities, as well as the benefits that would be lost if the invasive lionfish were allowed to take over a coastal environment. The diver keeps the speared lionfish at a safe distance, as the tips of some of its fins contain pain-causing venom.
With few natural enemies in its new home, 18 venomous spines for protection and the ability to live in a wide range of water depths, the lionfish is taking over Florida’s reefs and wrecks while working its way into estuaries and rivers. Marine scientists don’t believe lionfish be eliminated, meaning they’re permanent residents of Florida waters that are crowding out native fish.
Jackson, who kept a lionfish in his aquarium in college, said the federal government needs to be more selective about which animals it allows into the country, so we don’t wind up with another exotic critter invasion. Although nobody knows exactly how the lionfish got into Florida waters, scientists believe they were introduced by aquarium owners who no longer wanted them as pets.
“Because they don’t have any natural predators, they’re not afraid of anything, including us,” said Allie Engage of Sarasota, an avid diver who developed the ZooKeeper lionfish containment tube. Biologists are worried about the impacts of lionfish in part because they’re voracious predators that eat small native fish and steal their food.
Lionfish are relatively small, averaging 12 to 15 inches, but they can swallow fish half their body length. They heard prey with their large pectoral fins and blow water at other fish to get them to turn around before swallowing them.
Lionfish eat more than 70 marine fish and invertebrates, including yellowtail snapper, Nassau grouper, parrot fish, spiny lobster and banded coral shrimp. A single lionfish reduce the recruitment of small native fish by more than 90 percent in a few weeks, studies have shown.
Diver Keith Kovacs said he sees relatively few lionfish near inlets when diving off Palm Beach County. His dive group searches for lionfish on wider sections of reef away from inlets to find spots that aren’t picked over.
“I suspect the lionfish population is being supported by colonies in deeper water, outside the safe recreational diving range,” Kovacs said. A two-day festival was planned for Pensacola on May 14-15, 2016, and satellite lionfish events are expected that weekend throughout the state.
Its website (www.ReefRangers.com) includes an interactive map that shows which areas have been adopted so other divers don’t waste time searching the same spots for lionfish. Lionfish containment tubes, like this one made by ZooKeeper, prevent the fish from escaping or its spines from poking out.
The call to remove lionfish from Florida’s reefs and wrecks has led many divers to learn how to spear, handle and cook a fish whose 18 venomous spines contain a neurotoxin that causes a painful sting and swelling. Because their services are needed to defend Florida’s native fish populations from an aggressive invader, recreational divers are turning the call to action into a feel-good reason to get together, spear dinner and enjoy friendly competition at lionfish derbies.
“It amazes me how this terrible little fish that invaded our waters has brought together an amazing group of like-minded people,” said Grayson Shepard, an Apalachicola charter captain who enjoys diving for lionfish in the Gulf waters off the Panhandle. “Because of lionfish, I have made friends with folks who are going to be buddies of mine for the rest of my life.
The Dickerson’ goal is to produce a trap that will catch only lionfish, with zero by catch of other fish. The U.S. Geological Survey is providing scientific advice to the Dickerson for the lionfish trap, which is being tested at the Florida Institute of Technology’s Vero Beach Marine Laboratory.
The person who checks in the most lionfish between May 14 and Sept. 30 will be crowned Florida’s Lionfish King (or Queen), will receive a lifetime saltwater fishing license and will have their photo featured on the cover of the January 2017 saltwater regulations' brochure. A separate incentive program for the Panhandle applies to lionfish taken from the waters off Zambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf and Franklin counties.
For every 100 lionfish taken off the seven Panhandle counties between May 2016 and May 2017, the harvester will be eligible for a tag allowing them to take one legal-sized red grouper or a legal-sized cobra that is over the bag limit in state waters. The big carrot: Anyone who documents the harvest of 500 or more lionfish between May 2016 and May 2017 will be offered the opportunity to name an artificial reef.
“Innovative programs like these are a great way to generate public involvement and interest in controlling the lionfish population,” FCC Chairman Brian Babinski said. But divers shouldn’t rely on gloves to protect them from a lionfish ’s painful stings.
When diving offshore, Shepard unscrews the flushing hose from his outboard, fills a bucket with hot engine water and uses it to treat lionfish stings. Kyle Brown, a divemaster with the Wet Pleasures dive shop in Santana, uses blunt-tipped trauma scissors to trim the spines off lionfish after spearing them.
Where to look: Natural reefs, wrecks and other types of underwater structure attract lionfish in a variety of depths. Handling: Hold the lionfish ’s lower jaw with a thumb and forefinger, being careful to avoid spines.
Groupers may be able to limit the invasion of lionfish on the Caribbean coral reefs, according to new research conducted by The University of Queensland (Up). The discovery by an international research team, led by Up's School of Biological Science's, Professor Peter Mummy, could help save native fish populations in the Caribbean, which are being decimated by the pretty but ravenous aquarium favorite.
Lionfish are not found naturally in the Caribbean and it is believed they many have been released from aquariums in the United States and eventually made their way to the Bahamas in 2004. Professor Mummy said Lionfish numbers have increased dramatically in the past few years, and they have now invaded the entire Caribbean.
The team surveyed reefs inside and outside the Extra Cays Land and Sea Park, which are some of the most diverse marine reserves in the Caribbean, having been established in 1959. The research team from the University of Queensland (Australia) and American Museum of Natural History (New York) studied the invasion of lionfish in a remote stretch of coral reef in the Bahamas.
Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission.