The state of Florida has become a hot spot for exotic species.
While some of those species like Peacock Bass were intentionally introduced and are celebrated for keeping other invasive species in check, other species have harmful effects on the environment and need to be eradicated.
State wildlife authorities seem to be onto something when it comes to starting competitions aimed at convincing the public to remove those species for them, though.
Florida’s annual python challenge was launched to increase awareness about invasive species and the threats they pose to Florida’s ecosystems and to get more people involved in Everglades conservation through invasive species removal. As a result, 223 invasive pythons were removed from the landscape during this year’s events.
With snake hunting season over, Florida’s invasive wildlife warriors have set their sites on scrubbing another invasive species off the map – Lionfish.
The state’s sixth annual Lionfish Challenge exceeded expectations as divers removed a reported 21,146 of the villainous fishes from the sea.
The challenge ran from May 21st through September 6th and was open in the entirety of the state’s coastal waters. All in all, 185 divers registered for the event, which was an all-time high. The event is sponsored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC).
Brooks Freezer from the city of Jupiter took first place in the recreational division after removing 1,632 lionfish. Rachel Bowman from Marathon won the commercial division by harvesting a whopping 730 pounds of lionfish this summer.
The widespread removal of invasive lionfish is good news for the state’s native fish. Lionfish first started showing up around reefs in the Atlantic Ocean in the 1980s, and their ballooning population is believed to have originated from freed pets.
Lionfish are native to oceans across the Indo-Pacific region, but now invasive populations have been established along much of the Atlantic seaboard and throughout the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.
They are voracious predators and prolific breeders, which makes their impact on native fish populations particularly detrimental. They eat many of the fish species that keep coral reefs free of harmful algae, and a single female lionfish can produce up to 2 million eggs per year.
According to a spokeswoman for the Florida FWC, the size of the lionfish population is so large that specifics are unknown. It’s also unknown if the widespread removal of fish through challenges like this will actually have a dent in the overall population.
“We can say, anecdotally, that we have heard of people seeing less lionfish on commonly visited reefs, which could be a sign of people knowing more how to harvest and taking action.
There are also other factors that could be at play as well, including a recent disease that has impacted lionfish, as well as them possibly moving into deeper waters. Regardless, every bit of lionfish removal helps control the lionfish population and is something to be celebrated.”
The fish are nearly impossible to catch on a rod and reel or through traditional commercial fishing nets, which makes managing the population extremely challenging. While experimental traps are being deployed to target lionfish, the primary method for removing them from the ocean is through scuba diving or snorkeling and spearfishing.
Lionfish fillets are considered to be high-quality tableware, and more and more restaurants in Florida are starting to feature them on the menu. Because they are considered good eating, there is growing optimism that allowing them to be served in restaurants will further incentivize their widespread removal from non-native waters.
For more information on how divers are helping to manage harmful lionfish populations in Florida, check out this video from National Geographic.