On the water: An expedition to hunt lionfish

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The waters off the First Coast has been invaded by a poisonous fish that is devouring the native wildlife all along the western Atlantic.

The hunt for lionfish is well underway and First Coast News hopped onboard a lionfish expedition this weekend.

Just off the coast of Mayport Sunday, a crack team of spear fisherman and underwater photographers set off to hunt lionfish.

Joe Kistel is with TISIRI, an artificial reef diving and education group. He led the day's hunt.

"Right now, it's the only way we know to combat this problem because there's no known local predator, so there really aren't any checks and balances with this fish here," Kistel said.

Once the boat got to an artificial reef, the divers were ready. The flippers went on, the masks were pulled over their eyes, and they jumped into the water.

It didn't take long to find lionfish and to spear them.

Diver after diver came back up, saying things like, "Oh man, there's a lot," and "They're everywhere," and "It's an infestation!"

Divers brought up buckets of lionfish.

Lionfish are not native animals to the Florida coast. They're from the Pacific, and the predominant theory is they arrived here in the pet or aquarium trade.

One diver noted, "I could've gotten more, but I was limited by the bottom time down at that depth."

In a few hours, the divers dove three artificial reefs -- about 100 feet deep – all off the coast of Jacksonville. And they brought up more than 100 lionfish.

Diver Larry Davis said, "I basically stayed on one place and it was nonstop."

Some of the fish were caught alive. Kistel explained, "Some of the lionfish are going to research at UNF and JU."

The lionfish problem affects people like Captain Dan Lindley who has a charter fish business.

"They eat the little juvenile fish and any fish that hatches. The lionfish will end up eating them. Before you know it, the local fish will get smaller and smaller as years go on," Lindley said.

There was a different kind of problem for diver Elizabeth Kirillof, who had speared many fish Sunday morning. She came up from one dive session early because a lionfish had gotten her when she was trying to get it.

"The spear went all the way through the fish," Kirillof recalled. "It slid up the spear and it was flopping around."

It stung her hand.

Describing the feeling, she said, "It pricked a little, then started to burn and suddenly got worse and that is the point where I realized, 'I got stung!'"

She is okay, but her had did get swollen. It's a battle wound in the hunt for lionfish, which ended with a dinner of lionfish and Kistel's resolution to keep fighting.

"With every lionfish we bring up, it's a good thing. Unfortunately, a lot of fish are out there," Kistel said.


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