Starting Friday, the invasive lionfish can no longer be imported into Florida.
Several other lionfish management changes take effect Aug. 1 to help beat back the invasive, spiny predator and limit further introduction of the fish. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also will allow lionfish to be harvested by spearfishing when diving with a rebreather, a device that recycles air and allows divers to remain in the water for longer. Currently, divers cannot spear any fish when using a rebreather.
FWC also will allow participants of approved tournaments and other organized events to spear lionfish or other invasive species in areas where spearfishing is not currently allowed (such as certain state parks or refuges). This will be done through a permitting system.
Lionfish were first introduced into Florida waters in the late 1980s. Biologists aren't sure when lionfish first invaded the Indian River Lagoon, but in 2010, two Florida Tech students spotted several inside Sebastian Inlet. Since then, the fish has been found inside Port Canaveral. They've also been seen in the lagoon proper around seawalls, pilings and worst of all — mangroves, a key nursery for prized grouper, snapper and other commercially significant species. Hundreds have been found far inland inside Jupiter Inlet.
Commercializing lionfish poses challenges, biologists say. The fish is difficult to mass harvest. People spear them or catch them with small nets or in traps intended for crabs. And some are wary of the fish's venomous spines.
Last year, FWC hosted the first-ever Lionfish Summit in Cocoa Beach. More than 120 scientists, divers, regulators and others showed up to brainstorm solutions. Many of the changes taking effect in August came from ideas spawned at the summit.
These flamboyant fish — native to Pacific and Indian Oceans — have been on a destructive path for decades. The popular, prickly aquarium fish first got loose into the Atlantic Ocean in the mid-1980s, and more of them may have been released during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Now, the fish spans waters from the Caribbean to Rhode Island.
Those who eat lionfish swear by the white, flaky, nonfishy taste. Cleaning the fish presents a thorny issue, though. It has sharp, venomous spines.
They're easy to filet, those who savor them say, and the spines can be cut off.
The nonprofit Reef Environmental Education Foundation has a website — reef.org — that offers tips on how to prepare lionfish and information about what restaurants serve them.
For information, visit MyFWC.com/Fishing and click on "Saltwater," "Recreational Regulations" and "Lionfish. See or catch a lionfish? Report a sighting by downloading the new Report Florida Lionfish app on a smart device or by visiting MyFWC.com/Fishing and clicking on "Recreational Regulations" (under "Saltwater") and then "Lionfish."