Florida wildlife regulators clamp down on invasive lionfish

By Zachary Fagenson, Reuters
September 10, 2014

MIAMI (Reuters) – Florida wildlife regulators on Wednesday banned lionfish breeding as part of a struggle to control the invasive species that devours other fish and threatens coastal ecosystems.

The state prohibited the possession of lionfish eggs and larvae as well, after Florida last month became the first state in United States to outlaw importation of the barbed fish.

Bringing lionfish into Florida is now punishable by up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

“Every change that encourages removal is a step toward successfully limiting the negative impacts lionfish have on native fish and wildlife,” said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Executive Director Nick Wiley in a statement.

Florida also has loosened fishing rules for recreational divers and fishing enthusiasts to catch lionfish and encouraged hobbyists and chefs to pull them out of the water and into the kitchen.

Scientists fear the voracious lionfish, which can grow to over a foot (30 cm) in length, will decimate other species in Florida waters. The lionfish has few known predators and can feed on anything from shrimp to other fish.

With zebra-like stripes of red, brown and cream, lionfish are native to the tropical waters of the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Since their first sighting off Florida’s Atlantic coast 25 years ago, the banded lionfish population has increased rapidly, wildlife experts say.

It is unknown how the first release into U.S. waters occurred, but the Florida wildlife commission said it was likely an aquarium release of some kind.

Popular aquarium fish, they have spread in the wild from Florida to North Carolina and to the Bahamas.

A lionfish database operated by the United States Geological Survey includes more than 4,000 sightings since 1985, although estimates of the total lionfish population are not available.

(Editing by Letitia Stein, Ellen Wulfhorst and Sandra Maler)

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