Northeast Florida on the hunt for lionfish

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. -- The hunt is on all across Florida for the venomous, non-native fish called the lionfish. All over the state, lionfish round-ups are underway.

In Northeast Florida, the Lionfish Blast is cracking down on the spiny fish that has multiplied in the waters in just one year. It's the second year of the Lionfish Blast.

It's a competition to catch as many lionfish as possible and to help reduce the number of lionfish in Northeast Florida waters.

Joe Kistel is a diver, leading the hunt. He is with an artificial reef diving organization called TISIRI, and he and other divers are seeing more lionfish off the First Coast this year.

"For example, I have guys bringing in over 100 lionfish a day, per diver," Kistel said. "Some of these reefs and the entire reef structure will be covered with massive amounts of lionfish."

Lionfish are poisonous and are often caught with spears. They're from the Pacific, and around the U.S., there is no known predator. So the lionfish eat whatever they want.

"They're eating fish of environmental and economic importance," Kistel explained. "And if they're not directly eating them, then they're eating the food that supports these same species. And that hurts restaurants and fishermen."

Many scientists blame aquarium owners for the lionfish invasion.

"Probably a lot of people were releasing them who had them as pets," Kistel said. "They put the lionfish in a tank, they got too big, and people thought they were being humane, so let them go. And that's probably how it all started."

A legislative bill would ban the import of lionfish, which are then sold in pet stores.

Pet store owner Danny Conlin is not opposed to limiting a non-native, invasive species, and said the legislation may not impact pet stores much.

"We don't sell that many lionfish. It's not something we sell a lot of," Conlin said, adding that sometimes he'll have a lionfish in his shop for weeks before it is purchased.

Kistel doesn't think the ban would impact the population that much either. "They're already here," he said, pointing to the ocean. "What I would like to see is if the aquarium trade wants to sell them, then get them here. Why import more? We've got millions offshore here."

----To connect with Jessica Clark, follow her on Twitter at @JessicaFCN or Like her on Facebook.


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