MANATEE -- Mill Creek diver Chris Barton will never forget the first time he saw a lionfish in Manatee County waters.
"It was about two or three years ago, and we were diving on a natural gas pipeline mitigation site about 9 miles northwest of the tip of Anna Maria Island in between Egmont Key and Bean Point," said Barton, president of the Sarasota Spearfishing Association and operator of a dive charter business called Reel Diversion Charters. His slip is out of Main Sail Marina on Anna Maria Island.
"We were 55 feet underwater and there they were, a small grouping of them," Barton said.
Barton and other local anglers know well what lionfish can do to a reef.
A native of Indo-Pacific waters, the colorful lionfish, which has more than a dozen venomous spines, began to show up on both sides of the Florida Peninsula and Caribbean Sea in the early to mid-1990s.
The lionfish is a voracious eater that targets the small reef fish off the coast of Manatee County, which keep its 13 artificial reefs vibrant, said Max Dersch, Resource Division manager for Manatee County's Natural Resource Department.
Although usually found in deepwater 20 or so miles out into the Gulf of Mexico, lionfish have been seen just 10 miles from Manatee shores in 50 feet of water, Barton said.
The lionfish are bad news when it comes to predators, too. It seems nothing wants to eat a lionfish but a human, Dersch said.
"They have no known predators in Manatee waters," Dersch said. "Even their eggs, which are mucus-covered, are not tempting to prey."
Luckily, lionfish are easy to spear and good eating.
Since they have no predators, lionfish don't usually swim away when divers approach, Barton said.
"We have to find a way to put them on a local restaurant's menu," Barton said. "They are delicious, sort of like hogfish."
Some already are putting them on the menu. The Utamaro Sushi Restaurant on Main Street in Sarasota featured lionfish last weekend.
The lionfish probably arrived in Florida when a container ship pumped bal
last out along with lionfish eggs, said Allie ElHage, a Sarasota-based lionfish expert and diver who created in 2011 the ZooKeeper, an underwater lionfish containment device, to keep divers safe.
The ZooKeeper has a funnel on one end. Lionfish are jammed through the funnel with the diver's spear pole, which is withdrawn, leaving the lionfish in the ZooKeeper.
Up to 65 lionfish can be harvested at one time, ElHage said.
ElHage, born in Michigan but raised in the Caribbean on the island of Curacao, is building the ZooKeeper in Sarasota. It sells for $99.95 at dive shops.
ElHage knows firsthand how dangerous the lionfish can be.
"I was diving in Curacao in January 2012," ElHage said. "We were at a 70-foot depth. We had 64 or 65 lionfish in a ZooKeeper. I speared one more and tried to jam him in. He wasn't completely inside and I went to move the ZooKeeper and I put my hand right down on six of his spines.
"I felt an immediate, excruciating, burning pain in my palm," ElHage said. "It felt as if someone had stuck a hot iron inside my arm. I got stung at 5 p.m. My hand and arm quickly swelled to double and nearly triple the size. I finally fell asleep at 3 a.m."
ElHage said he knows of no one who has died from the venom. But it is hard to top as far as awful experiences, he said.
"My heart and respiration rates were way up," he said.
"Lionfish are a huge problem," said Carl Badgley, owner of Florida Underwater Sports, 6345 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, which sells ZooKeepers. "They eat what they want, which is everything."
Lionfish are skilled hunters, Badgley said. They stun prey by blowing a jet of water into their faces before sucking them into their mouths whole.
Barton, who has dedicated himself to eradicating lionfish, a few years ago made sure Sarasota had a lionfish derby held annually on the east coast of Florida.
The Suncoast Underwater Club's Suncoast Spearfishing Challenge, which includes many other fish species besides lionfish, is scheduled Sept. 20-22 this year with registration information at suncoastspearfishingchallenge.com. The entry fee is $70 and the prize money for spearing the most lionfish is still being determined, Barton said.
"Last year we took in 40 to 50 lionfish during the tournament," Barton said. "This year we are hoping to break 100."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 6686.