Gary Nichols' fellow commercial fishermen thought he was crazy when he first started targeting lionfish for commercial harvest.
Nichols, who fishes out of Conch Key, is now bringing in 100 pounds of lionfish a day in his spiny lobster traps and is selling it for $6 a pound. Many days, he catches more lionfish than lobster, and has earned the nickname "The Lion King."
Nearly all of the traps that are in water deeper than 140 feet have at least one lionfish inside, he said.
His success and profits are turning skeptics into believers and more and more Upper Keys fishermen are hopping on the bandwagon, he said, adding that at least four of those skeptics have joined in.
"Three years ago, I never saw any," Nichols said. "Last year, they were overwhelming. They are increasing at an amazing rate."
The proliferation of the invasive lionfish, which has a voracious appetite and the potential to upset the balance of the coral reef ecosystem, has prompted officials at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to issue a kill-on-site edict. There is no size limit, bag limit or closed season for lionfish.
Nichols called the lionfish market "unlimited." He has never been refused a buyer, he said. Lazy Days restaurant in Islamorada and The Conch House in Key Largo will take as much lionfish as he can catch, the owners said.
Nichols called lionfish the "best fish I have eaten, bar none."
"It's pure white, flaky meat," Nichols said.
Both restaurant owners say they will go through 100 pounds in a week, if available. High winds that prevent Nichols from checking his traps are the only problem, they said.
"People come in just for the lionfish," Lazy Days owner Lupe Ledesma said. "It's worth the effort to get it."
"People love it. They request it daily," Conch House owner Ted Dreaver said.
Nichols is not only selling lionfish, but working with researchers to better understand the fish's impact on the lobster population. Nichols has partnered with Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) and the University of Miami, which have received funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to study the impacts of lionfish on lobster populations.
University of Miami graduate student Dominique Lazarre goes with Nichols once a month when he and his crew check the traps. She counts, samples and measures the lionfish and also takes note of other by-catch in his traps.
Lazarre has also given logbooks to roughly 15 Upper Keys trap fishermen to record the prevalence of lionfish.
"We hope to find out if lionfish are having an antagonistic effect on lobster catch," Lazarre said. "We also want to see how effective the trap fishery is in removing lionfish from ecosystems. We don't think it is going to eradicate lionfish, but traps could reduce the numbers. They are already catching them in the traps, it's a bonus to do something with them other than getting poked by their spines."
Once lobster season ends later this month, Lazarre will crunch the data and hopefully have a better understanding of the impact.