The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) board will vote on a series of proposals Wednesday to make it easier to eradicate lionfish from Florida waters.
One proposal would ban the importation of live lionfish, prohibit the sale of illegally imported live lionfish, and prohibit aquaculture of lionfish in Florida.
Lionfish are commonly sold at pet stores and through the aquarium trade.
The state Legislature is also scheduled to vote this month on a piece of legislation supporting the FWC's position on banning the importation of lionfish.
"The bill is in support of the proposed commission changes and will provide much-needed awareness to the issue, serves as a means for the members of the Legislature to express their support for the components of the bill, encourages public participation in addressing the issue, and demonstrates that FWC and the Legislature stand together in our desire and efforts to deal with this problem," FWC spokeswoman Amanda Nalley said.
The FWC board will vote on another proposal Wednesday to make it easier for lionfish derbies to be held. The Florida Keys-based Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) holds several derbies a year, with the goal of wiping out as many lionfish as divers can spear.
The proposal would streamline the permitting process for derbies. The proposed rule would allow the FWC executive director, or his designee, to issue permits to tournaments or other approved events for use of spear-fishing gears in areas where spearing is prohibited. These permits would only be issued for the removal of lionfish.
Organizers of lionfish tournaments in the Florida Keys would still have to receive the permission of the sanctuary if divers plan to spear lionfish in areas where it is prohibited, such as special protection areas and the Key Largo and Looe Key sanctuary areas, sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton said.
REEF is currently conducting studies looking at the effectiveness of diver removal and of derbies, said Elizabeth Underwood, REEF's lionfish program coordinator.
Lionfish are an invasive species from the Indo-Pacific region. The Florida Keys has seen a significant increase in lionfish in the past five years. It is having a major impact on the local reef ecosystem as lionfish compete with native species for food, scientists have said.
Lionfish eat more than 70 species of fish and possess venomous spines capable of deterring predators, and inflicting mild to serious stings on divers, according to REEF officials.
The FWC, the Florida Keys Sanctuary, REEF and other ocean conservation groups have launched efforts to eradicate lionfish, including fishing derbies, cookbooks and outreach programs to remind divers there is no bag or size limit, and the fish is never out of season.
One of the key weapons in the battle against lionfish is making the fish a commercially sold product. Many Florida Keys trap fishermen are subsidizing their income by selling the fish that have made their way into traps. Those fishermen are pulling traps in waters deeper than 100 feet, which are home to the larger concentrations of lionfish, according to commercial trap fisherman Gary Nichols.
Nichols harvested 7,000 pounds of lionfish this past lobster season, 10,000 pounds the prior season, and 6,000 pounds two seasons ago, he said. Nichols sells them to local restaurants and fish houses.
"They are eating up everything," Nichols said. "We have even found ones with smaller lionfish in their mouths. They are eating their buddies."
Also on Wednesday, the FWC board will vote on a proposal to limit the number of sea cucumbers commercial divers can harvest from state waters. There is a growing overseas market for the sea slug, which is commonly found in Florida Keys waters. The emerging market has the FWC proposing tighter restrictions on the harvest of sea cucumber.
The board will vote on a proposal to limit the daily commercial harvest of sea cucumbers to 200 per vessel per day, according to Nalley. Currently, commercial fishermen with a basic saltwater products license can harvest as many as they want.
The FWC board meets Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in Havana (near Tallahassee).