Florida puts bounty on invasive lionfish _lowres

Lionfish, like this one spotted in the Bahamas, are a carnivorous, non-native predatory fish that damage coral reefs and can decimate native fish populations. (Cammy Clark/Miami Herald/MCT)

With more and more Louisianans taking reef-diving trips to Florida, divers need to take note of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s recent action on a program to remove more lionfish, a nonnative species, from state waters.

Last week, the FWC approved a two-part plan it and Florida marine biologists will further encourage removals of the invasive species in the coming months.

The FWC’s announcement stated what the other four Gulf states have found during the past 8-10 years that lionfish, with no natural predators and a species with poisonous spines, “have a potential negative impact on native wildlife and habitat.”

The news also stated the two-part initiative will include a statewide reward program that will expand upon 2015 efforts and a Panhandle Pilot Program.

“Innovative programs like these are a great way to generate public involvement and interest in controlling the lionfish population,” FWC Chairman Brian Yablonski said. “Those that remove lionfish not only get rewarded for their efforts, but they also get the experience of helping manage Florida’s fisheries. In addition, involving Florida’s residents and visitors helps us gather better data to continuously evaluate and improve our approach to invasive species control.”

The Statewide Program: Participants must remove 50 or more lionfish between May 14’s Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day and Sept. 30. Qualified participants will receive a commemorative coin to mark their membership and an event T-shirt; be featured in the FWC Lionfish Hall of Fame on the MyFWC.com website; be entered in drawings to win prizes including fishing licenses, lionfish harvesting equipment, fuel cards and dive tank refills; and, if qualified before the relevant fishing seasons start, they will have the opportunity to take an additional spiny lobster per day during the July 27-28, 2016 mini-season. FWC will also consider allowing the opportunity to harvest an additional bag limit per day of bay scallops during the Sept. 3-5 Labor Day weekend, where the population can support harvest.

Qualifying lionfish must be counted via an FWC-approved process such as a sponsored tournament or a check-in location.

These locations will be listed online at MyFWC.com/Lionfish. All other fishing regulations still apply.

The person who checks in the most lionfish during the May 14-Sept. 30 period will be crowned Florida’s Lionfish King or Queen and will receive a lifetime saltwater fishing license, have his or her photograph featured on the cover of the FWC’s January 2017 saltwater regulations publication, be featured on MyFWC.com’s Lionfish Hall of Fame, and be recognized at the November 2016 Commission meeting.

The FWC will be working to establish as many lionfish check-in locations as possible between now and May 14, and lionfish recorded at FWC-sponsored tournaments will automatically count. A list of tournaments and check-in locations will be available on MyFWC.com/Lionfish before May 14.

The FWC release also announced the May 14-15 FWC-hosted Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day Festival in Pensacola.

Joe Macaluso