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Competition aims to eliminate harmful species

7:42 AM, Mar 29, 2013   |    comments
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - If the Atlantic Ocean had a "most wanted" list, one fish in particular would probably be at the top.

The lionfish is native to the Indo-Pacific, but in recent years it has made its way to southern and northeastern Florida.

Experts believe people are dumping the lionfish in the ocean after it becomes too big for their aquariums.

"While they might think that is the right thing to do, that is actually the worst thing they could do," said Joe Kistel with Think It Sink It Reef It, a wildlife non-profit in Jacksonville.

The problem is the lionfish has no natural predator, meaning no other animal is eating it.

Instead, it is eating a lot of baby fish other animals and humans depend on in many ways.

For instance, Kistel said the lionfish likes to prey on baby grouper. That interrupts the ocean's food chain, the species' reproductive cycle and the ability for fishermen to stay in business.

"There are major ecological and economic implications for the First Coast and Florida as a whole," Kistel said.

Complicating the matter is the fact the lionfish is poisonous. It has locations on its body that are full of venom.

Kistel said the fish can puncture the human skin and inject its venom as a defense mechanism, resulting in extreme pain.

As far as Kistel can tell, no one has died from the injury.

But now a group of divers are on a mission to try and eliminate the fish from the Atlantic.

They're competing in a monthlong event that starts this Saturday in Jacksonville.

It's called the Northeast Florida Lionfish Blast.

Competitors choose two days during the next month to go out and try to kill as many lionfish as they can.

They will have to dive down about 75 to 100 feet to reach the fish and use a three prong spear to kill them.

Then the fish have to be placed in a special bag to protect the divers as they swim back to the surface.

Kistel says natural predation is the best way to get rid of lionfish, even though some might argue it's inhumane.

"There's no pill solution for something like this. You can't just go and spray something in the ocean and just target lionfish, and they're going to disappear. That doesn't exist, so if we don't have natural predation. Nothing natural is going to keep them in check," he said.

Florida wildlife officials are on board, too.

They do not require a license to hunt lionfish and agree the species is invasive and harmful to the ocean's existing ecosystem.

It's a problem that's only getting worse, too.

Lionfish grow seven inches a year and can begin reproducing within their first year of life.

After that, the females can reproduce every four days. So while it's impossible to know how many are in the ocean right now, Kistel estimates they're multiplying all the time.

"Just when we go down on our dives to the reefs, we see hundreds at a time. And that's just one spot," he said.

Tournament information can be found here.

First Coast News

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