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MIAMI (CBSMiami) — More than 15,000 lionfish were removed from Florida waters thanks to several tournaments held across the state focused on targeting the invasive species.

Five of those fish were tagged previously by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) staff as part of the 2018 Lionfish Challenge, a removal incentive program that started May 19 on Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day.

“This is an amazing showing for the fourth annual Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day weekend and surrounding events,” said Jessica McCawley, director of FWC’s Division of Marine Fisheries Management. “Lionfish were removed via tournaments and the FWC’s incentive program, and the public got to learn first-hand about lionfish and what they can do to help at festivals like the one in Perdido Key held by the FWC and Coast Watch Alliance, as well as various other partners.”

The Lionfish Challenge runs through Sept. 3.

More than 200 people have already registered to participate in the statewide Challenge, which rewards lionfish harvesters with prizes for their lionfish removals, tagged or not. The tagged lionfish component is new this year and includes cash prizes up to $5,000.

Lionfish were tagged at 50 public artificial reefs across the state. Harvesters who caught the five tagged fish this weekend took home cash prizes up to $2,500 and non-cash prizes as well. All five tagged fish were caught off Escambia County.

Sign up and learn more today by visiting MyFWC.com/Lionfish.

The invasion of lionfish throughout the Atlantic is considered as menacing to native wildlife as the Burmese python’s incursion into Florida’s Everglades. Both invasive species have thrived far from their native habitats, and their numbers have grown largely unchecked by anything except cold temperatures.

According to wildlife officials, lionfish off the southeast United States, Bahamas and the Caribbean harm indigenous fish because they eat important juvenile reef species, such as grouper and snapper.

Lionfish are gluttonous eaters. They eat anything it can fit in its mouth and so far, there’s nothing in the ocean that eats the lionfish. They have spines that sting anything that comes in contact with them and even sharks are afraid of them.

Spearing or using hand-held nets are the most effective method of removing lionfish from Florida waters.

Lionfish have venomous spines but they are edible. When properly cleaned, lionfish yield a white meat that is considered a delicacy.

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