Florida just made it easier for divers to rid state waters of invasive lionfish and to kill as many of the dreaded, venomous fish as they can.
At its meeting Wednesday in Lakeland, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission decided to waive the recreational license requirement for divers harvesting lionfish using certain gear. Commissioners also voted to exclude lionfish from the commercial and recreational bag limits, allowing people to take as many of the invasive fish as they can.
Previously, recreational anglers could only catch up to 100 pounds of lionfish without a commercial license.
Now they can target lionfish with hand-held nets, pole spears, Hawaiian slings or any other spearing devices designed and marketed exclusively for lionfish - all without needing a recreational license.
An executive order in August 2012 temporarily allowed harvesting lionfish with the same gear and without a license, but that order was to expire Aug. 3. The new rule takes effect before the executive order expires, so there won't be a lapse in the expanded permissions.
Lionfish don't belong here. They are widely distributed throughout the western Pacific from southern Japan to Micronesia, Australia and the Philippines.
The popular aquarium fish got loose in the Atlantic about 15 years ago. Now they span from the Caribbean to Connecticut.
In Florida, they wreak havoc on native species, including about 50 species of fish, crabs, shrimp and other Indian River Lagoon life that's been found so far in their guts.
Two Florida Tech students first spotted lionfish in the lagoon region in 2010, inside Sebastian Inlet.
Since then, lionfish have been found as far north as the Trident Basin inside Port Canaveral. They've also been seen in the lagoon.
Lionfish have for years invaded mangroves in the Caribbean, and that's what's happening in the lagoon, FWC officials say. That was one of biologists' worst fears - that the fierce lionfish would infiltrate one of the lagoon's most important nursery areas for prized snapper, grouper and other commercially significant species.
FWC wants researchers and others to bag lionfish and put them on ice and so biologists can study where they go, what they eat and whether they contain the ciguatera toxin, which can sicken people who eat certain reef fish.
The most effective way to harvest lionfish from Florida waters is with a spear or hand-held net, FWC officials said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration launched an "Eat Lionfish" campaign a few years ago. In some areas, control efforts involve local spearfishermen or drives to come up with good recipes for their fillets.
Officials want the lionfish dead but warn people not to handle them. The fish's venomous spines can cause a very painful wound.
Lionfish usually lurk along reefs 50 feet or deeper.
Cold water welling up from the ocean floor can push them in from offshore reefs.