New program: Harvest a lionfish, get an extra lobster

Spearfishermen who bag at least 10 lionfish a day during the two-day lobster mini-season next month will be entitled to an extra lobster if state fishery managers approve a new pilot program this week.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) board will vote on a proposal when it meets Thursday in Sarasota that would allow divers that harvest 10 or more lionfish a day to take one lobster over the bag limit during the two-day sport season, which is July 29 and 30. In the Keys, recreational divers are entitled to six lobsters a day.

A diver would only be allowed to possess a single lobster above the bag limit per day, regardless of how many lionfish greater than 10 they harvested, FWC spokeswoman Amanda Nalley.

“If you get 50 lionfish, you are not entitled to five extra lobsters,” Nalley said.

In addition, the lionfish must be harvested prior to taking the extra lobster, and divers would be required to retain their lionfish while on the water to verify their qualification for the additional lobster, Nalley said.

FWC staff has been pushing lionfish eradication programs for the past five years and trying to reach more groups interested in killing lionfish. Currently, there is no size limit, bag limit or closed season for lionfish.

“This is the group (spearfishermen) most closely tied to harvesting fish or lobster,” Nalley said.

One of the biggest supporters of lionfish eradication efforts has concerns about the FWC proposal.

“There are other ways to do it without further impacting the lobster fishery,” said Lad Akins, who oversees special projects for the Key Largo-based REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation). “We need rules that are based on sound science. Lobster regulations are in place for a good reason. I understand what they are trying to do, but we don’t need to give up an extra lobster to accomplish the goal.”

REEF has been on the forefront of lionfish research and eradication efforts. The group was one of the first to hold lionfish removal derbies and has worked closely in the past several years with the FWC and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary on eradication.

Akins instead proposed waiving the lobster endorsement tag fee for people who hunt or harvest a certain number of lionfish, he said.

In the past five years, the FWC has launched several projects to reduce regulations for individuals who want to harvest lionfish. Recreational lionfish harvesters are no longer required to have a recreational fishing license when using a pole spear, Hawaiian sling, hand-held net, or any other spearing device designed and marketed exclusively for lionfish.

Measures have also been put in place to minimize the potential for new introductions of lionfish into Florida waters. FWC staff worked with the Division of Aquaculture at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to coordinate implementation of a prohibition on breeding lionfish and cultivating their eggs or larvae in captivity. Measures have also been added to limit the possibility of new introductions by prohibiting the import of any lionfish into the state of Florida.

The FWC created a Lionfish Outreach Team with the goal of educating the public about lionfish and the invasive species’ impact on the marine ecosystem.

FWC has also designed a new program, Reef Rangers, which is comparable to the Adopt-A-Highway Program offered by the Florida Department of Transportation where volunteers commit to litter removal from their section of the highway. Similarly, participants in the Reef Rangers program pledge to protect their local reefs against the lionfish invasion and conduct lionfish removals at regularly scheduled intervals on reefs of their choice. Divers can sign up for the Reef Rangers program online at ReefRangers.com or at a lionfish event using the program’s traveling sign-up kiosks.

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