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Lionfish problems: Traps could be answer to Gulf invaders

Photo: Coast Watch Alliance

An environmental scientist and a physicist got married. Both love to dive and share a passion for protecting the Gulf of Mexico. Luckily, that couple is leading the charge to rid our waters of the dreaded lionfish. Traps may well prove to be a part of the answer. The Clarks are researching how they work and if they're effective.

Pensacola has an unwelcome new title.

"We're the lionfish capitol of the world," said Bryan Clark.

From Pensacola to Panama City, our edge of the Gulf has the highest concentration of the destructive predatory fish than anywhere else, even in it's native Indian and Pacific oceans.

Clark continued, "It's a challenge to us all, but if we do nothing, the alternative is really not acceptable."

Bryan and Anna Clark formed Coast Watch Alliance after the BP oil spill to protect our local reefs. Both are technical divers, which means they're trained and certified to dive much deeper than recreational divers are allowed.

The couple is alarmed by the number and size of the lionfish colonies that are coming across.

Anna Clark said, "They'll gorge themselves. A lot of times when we shoot 'em, we'll open 'em up and they'll have huge fish and a lot of fish. Forty to fifty fish in a lionfish."

Divers have been shooting and harvesting lionfish since they were first spotted in local Gulf waters back in 2010. The Clarks and Coast Watch Alliance volunteers are working with NOAA research scientists and the University of Georgia to test lionfish traps.

"There's a structure in the middle and the lionfish are attracted to that structure," Bryan explained.

The research traps don't contain bait and remain open in a clam shell position. There's limited or no "by-catch" and fish don't die during containment.

Bryan went on, "When it's time to pull the trap, the jaws come up and they have a net on them so they come up and the lionfish kinda huddle in close to the structure and stay in the trap as it's pulled up."

Coast Watch Alliance volunteers put in the research traps, check them regularly, do fish counts, take underwater video and send information back to their government and academic partners. Bryan said the goal is to fine-tune a final trap design that will be approved for use in local waters and is easy to construct from proved plans and transport.

The Clarks hope they will eventually open up a new local industry.

"We've got a big focus on encouraging people to get out there and harvest lionfish commercially because there are a lot of restaurants that want to serve lionfish," said Bryan.

Demand far exceeds supply for the light, flaky fish. The traps could be the ultimate win-win, turn a profit while removing a delicious predator.

You can taste and see lionfish this weekend at the Lionfish Awareness and Removal Day. The festival will be held at the end of Palafox Street in Pensacola on Palafox Pier.

The Lionfish Tournament goes on Saturday and Sunday. Last year, divers hauled in more than 8,000 lionfish over the two-day event.

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