Saturday, January 20, 2018
Outdoors

Lionfish invasion growing in area waters

Heyward Mathews has been scuba diving and spearfishing the Gulf of Mexico for more than 40 years. An oceanographer by trade, Mathews is trained to observe and record changes in the undersea world.

But Mathews will be the first to tell you it doesn't take a marine biologist to figure out something's wrong with Florida's offshore reefs.

"Lionfish," Mathews said in a recent telephone interview. "Head out to the Middle Grounds and they are everywhere."

The exotic creature, a native of the Pacific Ocean, was introduced into the Atlantic Ocean in the late 1980s. It's a mystery how or exactly when the first lionfish found its way into the wild, but many scientists suspect the invasive species probably got a foothold somewhere in South Florida and worked its way into the Gulf of Mexico.

In less 30 years, lionfish have worked all the way up the East Coast to the Carolinas and as far south as Brazil. The lionfish has no natural predators in this part of the world, so the venomous species has spread virtually unchecked.

"There is really no way to get rid of them except to go down there and spear them," said Mathews. These fish might look pretty in an aquarium, Mathews said, but in the gulf, lionfish upset the natural balance on the reefs and compete for food with local species such as grouper and snapper.

Divers do not have to kill every lionfish on a reef to make a difference. Removing just 25 percent of these invasive predators from an area can make a difference.

"Lionfish can eat more than 20 small snapper, sea bass or other reef fish in a single day," Mathews said. "On some coral reefs in the Caribbean, the lionfish have eaten so many of the parrot fish, the corals have become covered in algae."

For several years, divers in the Florida Keys have put together "lionfish roundups," which have proved effective in reducing the number of these fish on local reefs. One hunt removed more than 500 fish in a day.

Lionfish seldom take bait on a hook, so the only way to really combat this piscatorial plague is to enlist the support of spearfish anglers.

Meanwhile, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has taken steps to keep the problem from getting worse. New regulations under consideration include a prohibition on the importation of live lionfish and the development of a lionfish aquaculture industry.

The commission also wants to loosen some regulations so lionfish hunts can be held in areas that do not allow spearfishing. This would be done through a special permitting system.

In Tampa Bay, Mathews and his colleagues at Reef Monitoring Inc., a small nonprofit group of marine scientists from St. Petersburg College and the University of South Florida, is organizing a lionfish roundup.

Saturday, Reef Monitoring hosts the first in a series of local lionfish hunts. Prizes include $500 to the team that collects the most lionfish, and $300 for the largest and the smallest lionfish. The weigh-in is at the Clearwater Harbor Marina

Why a prize for the smallest lionfish? Mathews and his fellow researchers plan to measure each fish, look at the stomach contents and remove the otoliths, or ear bones, from each head. Marine biologists use these bones to age the fish, much like foresters count the rings in a tree trunk.

Several local dive shops have special dive packages that include a two-tank dive, rental of a pole spear and a collection bag.

General registration is $20. Go to reefmonitoring.org to learn more.

Comments

Captainís Corner: What to expect from fish coming out of the cold spell

Extreme cold has brought backcountry water temperatures down. As in years past, extreme dips have shocked many fish, especially snook, which take the biggest hit and become extremely lethargic and often near death. Luckily the cold wonít be long, and...
Published: 01/19/18

Captainís Corner: Divers, anglers going after amberjack

Over the past two weeks divers and anglers have been in search of amberjack. The season opened Jan. 1 and ends Jan. 27. The short season for gulf amberjack has pushed many divers and anglers to venture offshore, even in questionable weather. Donít fo...
Published: 01/18/18

Captainís Corner: Cold weather brings different but effective fishing styles

This past week has seen a variety of different fishing styles prove effective. Fishing for trout in deeper depressions with live shrimp has provided steady action. Rig as follows: Use a ?-ounce jighead, grab a shrimp from the well and pinch the tail ...
Published: 01/17/18

Captainís Corner: Devise a strategy before heading out into the cold

The quality of fishing this month depends on how many cold fronts are in our future. When the water creeps down below 60 degrees, many fish will slow their metabolism in order to survive. They require less food than in the warmer months, making some ...
Published: 01/16/18

Captainís Corner: Make sure the fly gets in front of a hungry fish

Back-to-back winter cold fronts not only confuse inshore fish but the fly fishers who pursue them. The most perfectly tied fly is not effective unless it is in front of a fish that is anxious to eat it. The best daytime tides, very low early and inco...
Published: 01/12/18
Updated: 01/14/18

Captainís Corner: Cold, windy days just fine for trout fishing

Trout have been my most productive target during the start of this new year. Winter cold fronts and cold water are making conditions difficult to target snook and reds. Strong winds from passing fronts make it hard to work the shallow-water flats. Th...
Published: 01/12/18
Updated: 01/13/18

Captainís Corner: Cold driving out kings, but there are alternatives

Mother Nature gives and she takes away. Nature gave us warm water and great king fishing until Dec. 31. She ushered in the new year with a severe cold front with high winds and rough seas that kept us in port every day. The cold air and overcast skie...
Published: 01/11/18
Updated: 01/12/18

Captainís Corner: Techniques for catching (and cooking) tasty sheepshead

Cold water has fishing in sort of slow motion. Middle bay temperatures (Gandy area) are holding in the 54-56 degree range. During this time of year the stalking of large snook and redfish take a back seat to finesse fishing and trying to figure out w...
Published: 01/10/18
Captainís Corner: Colder weather calls for different approaches

Captainís Corner: Colder weather calls for different approaches

With colder weather the first big change is what bait to use. Before the cold fronts in the first week we were using greenbacks and catching a bunch of snook. With the cold weather that has hit us we are now shifting gears and using shrimp and throwi...
Published: 01/08/18
Updated: 01/09/18

Captainís Corner: Winter need not interrupt fishing

The inevitable effects of wintertime fishing have finally arrived, but there are plenty of opportunities for the determined angler. Trout, both silver and specs, are cold water tolerant and among the best bets inshore. Now too is when schools of shee...
Published: 01/07/18
Updated: 01/08/18