For several years, the fishing populous of the Sunshine State has become aware of presence of the dreaded lionfish in regional waters. While the emphasis was previously limited to areas near the Florida Keys, this reality has now directly affected Southwest Florida.
Casting into the Gulf of Mexico, only 200 yards from the luxurious shoreline of Vanderbilt Beach in Naples, a Collier County fisherman recently caught a lionfish in shallow coastal waters with a rod and reel.
As first reported by the Naples Daily News, 26 year-old Mike Domanski surprisingly captured the predator last week, when fishing off a small boat in celebration of his birthday. The catch was unexpected and Domanski told NBC-2 News in Fort Myers, "We just wanted to get rid of it."
Thankfully, the fisherman documented the strike with a photo, as there have only been limited prior reports of the predator in Southwest Florida. It is not unexpected, however, because local water temperatures are agreeable and a wealth of natural food exists to satisfy its voracious appetite.
Also known as "pterois," the fish is native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, where it thrives in the warm waters of reefs. Exported as a prized member of saltwater aquariums, the invasive fish was accidentally introduced to Caribbean and Atlantic waters in the last two decades. While most American sightings have occurred near Florida, the fish has been reported as far away as North Carolina and Louisiana.
Reaching a full-grown size of 16 inches and 1 1/2 pounds, the brightly colored lionfish is surrounded by venomous spines sticking out in all directions. As a result, the species fears few predators and can devour small fish and invertebrates at an alarming rate. One study reveals an expanding lionfish population can devastate upwards of 80% of natural marine life existing on a reef.
In response to the spotting off Vanderbilt Beach, Bill D'Antuono, the president of the Naples Spearfishing League, has started a petition to legalize spearfishing in Collier County. The petition notes that Naples is the only part of coastal Florida where the tactic of spearfishing is banned.
Lionfish are rarely captured with a fishing pole. As a result, Caribbean divers have employed spearfishing as the primary means of controlling the population. Though their spines contain a toxic venom, capable of causing nausea, vomiting, fever, and more, many rave about the taste of the lionfish, which can be eaten safely when properly filleted.
In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has actually encouraged introducing the lionfish into our typical seafood diet, since it offers a similar taste to grouper and could ease over-fishing of other reef species, such as red snapper.
Southwest Florida has long been considered a fishing paradise due to a broad diversity of widely-sought species within both inshore and offshore waters. The new presence of the lionfish has the potential to upset that balance and should be monitored closely. Mike Dominski's catch near the beaches of Naples is a vivid reminder of the necissity of that task.