The Gulf of Mexico has been invaded by lionfish.
The beautiful yet freaky and intimidating fish has expanded its territory to now occupy almost all depths of Gulf waters. What was once a rare sight is now far too common for divers and spear fisherman like Ritchie Zacker.
Zacker makes a living diving in the Gulf of Mexico commercially spearfishing for gamefish like grouper, snapper and amberjack. It wasn't that long ago he remembers seeing his first lionfish in the Gulf of Mexico.
"The first one I saw in the Gulf of Mexico was about February four years ago in the Florida Middlegrounds," Zacker said. "By the end of that year, we were seeing bunches of them all over the place out there. Now they are taking over everything and we see them everywhere."
The FWC has put the hit out, stating on their website: "Lionfish are an invasive species that have a potential negative impact on native species and habitat. FWC encourages divers, anglers and commercial harvesters to remove lionfish in Florida waters to limit negative impacts to native marine life and ecosystems."
To fight back, there were more than 30 lionfish kill tournaments around the state of Florida during 2015. Thousands of lionfish were removed as many tournaments awarded prizes for the biggest, smallest, and most lionfish killed.
The sport of lionfish killing has become refined as new devices have hit the market. ZooKeepers are hard plastic tubes which hold lionfish in a contained environment. Combined with barbless pole spears, divers are able to kill and bag lionfish in minimal time and without having to handle them, which can be dangerous.
Zackere describes his painful run in with a venomous lionfish. "We were out on the middlegrounds on a three-day trip, and I shot a red grouper that went into a hole. I reached in and felt a sting on the vein of my left wrist and knew it was a lionfish.
"I finished the dive, came up, and told everyone I got stung by a lionfish. Luckily, we were able to make hot water on the boat. I stuck my arm in it for about an hour and took Benadryl. It still swelled up, and the pain was intense for three hours. At the end of the day when I took my rash guard off it looked like I had hives. Without Benadryl and hot water it would have been a lot worse.
"I had a bump on my vein for six weeks."
Perhaps one of the benefits of lionfish is know to very few. Despite their intimidating look, they are delicious. As a result, a small commercial market has began to form for those who are interested in lionfish for food. On a commercial trip, Zacker and his crew mates hauled in 230 pounds.
"The biggest problem in our area is the lack of buyers, and those who buy don't always take everything we bring in. There is a big market on the East Coast, up in the Panhandle and in the Florida Keys. With the 230 pounds, we had to find three different buyers, and that is a lot of work for us."
If that market develops, there should be interest because of the great table fare they offer. The more people removing lionfish, the better for the environment.
Next week, I will go in depth about the lionfish viewpoint from a buyer, and give details about my first tasting of lionfish from the Beach House restaurant. Hint: I suggest everyone try it.