New strategy to attack lionfish population

WEAR-TV Photographer Al Showers

There's now some hope in the battle against lionfish. New data is showing they may be expanding into rivers. Lionfish are an invasive Gulf species killing young populations of native fish.

Researchers said lionfish are eating native fish at an alarming rate.

"How they kill their prey is they can swallow something up to a 1/3 of their body weight and their stomach expands so they can eat and eat, " Brian Asher with Coast Watch Alliance said.

He said there is no exact data on how many lionfish are out there but they do know "they put over 2 million eggs a year, they breed every 4 days. So tons of eggs and tons of lionfish."

Asher said just recently the University of West Florida conducted a study and found the species could be expanding to rivers.

"It's environmental DNA, they take a water sample and can see which species has been present. It was found lionfish was being found in some inland rivers. It's a saltwater species but has tolerance to brackish waters. There has been no sighting but markers saying it has been up river farther than we thought."

Asher said they are now working closely with many organizations to try and control the population. They are in the beginning phases of allowing local fishermen to sell in higher priced markets. "As we make it more financially viable, I believe it will make it a big reduction in numbers. The same fish I can sell at the dock and sell for $6-7 a pound , I can sell in Delaware for $12-13 a pound and that's real money. That makes a real difference," Asher said.

There are licensing issues they are currently trying to work out. Lionfish traps are also proving to be effective but permitting the use of them is still several years away.

"That will allow small fisherman to reach depths divers can't and collect in volumes we can't. It's a challenge getting it in there, so you would need approval and a lot of work being done on that front," Asher said.

There is a lot of red tape they have to get through. But for now, they are hoping to spread awareness and get them on more menus across the area. Hopefully that will encourage more divers to catch them.

This weekend there will be a large lionfish awareness festival. It's at the Flora-Bama on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

You can taste lionfish cooked by celebrity chefs, learn more about lionfish and what's being done to control the population.

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