Right now any Floridian can walk into any aquarium store or pet store and choose from a wide array of potentially threatening species, including iguanas, which are surging to the one of the top spots on Florida’s pest-invaders leader board.
Florida has always been on the front lines of the fight against non-native, invasive species — both in impact (we’ve all seen the stories of the havoc wrought by giant pythons and water hyacinth) and in creative ways to confront the problems that exotic species pose.
One of the state’s main tactics has been to encourage its residents to unleash a little Terminator action on any exotic species they encounter.
That’s working out pretty well in some areas, as the results of the state’s fourth Lionfish Challenge (which wrapped up in September) demonstrate. Statewide, upward of 23,000 fish met an untimely end.
And great for Florida diners: Once the venomous spines are removed, lionfish are very tasty.
Scientists say the exotic-looking fish, with its distinctive brown-and-white stripes and up to 18 projecting spines, is a voracious eater, with a diet that includes young grouper and snapper, two of Florida’s favorite native sports fish, along with species like parrotfish that are critical to the health of the state’s natural and artificial reef systems. Lionfish are even more enthusiastic breeders. One female can produce as many as 2 million eggs a year.
Getting them out of state waters and onto plates isn’t easy. The most common method still relies on one of the oldest tools known to mankind: One spear, one person, one lionfish at a time.
That makes the results of the challenge look even more impressive. Joshua Livingston of Okaloosa County took the commercial-catch crown this year, with 3,192 fish to his credit. The man dubbed the “Lionfish King” — David Garrett of Ormond Beach, who was the first statewide champion when the challenge launched in 2016 — posted a respectable body count of 500 fish in 2019.
Lionfish aren’t the only invasive species with a bounty on their heads (or at least, a license to kill). The state pays registered python hunters $8.10 an hour to hunt the scaly menace, plus bounties of $50 for every dead snake longer than 4 feet, and an additional $25 for every foot of length after that. Eliminating a python nest with eggs is worth $200.
But like the lionfish, these kills require a fairly intensive effort. The state needs better ways to control invasive species, and that starts by keeping them from invading in the first place.
In nearly every case, the problem starts with human beings, who want fancy-looking pets but dump them into a nearby field or stream once they become too big or too troublesome to handle. Scientists are pretty sure that’s how pythons and lionfish got their first toehold here — along with humbler species like exotic apple snails, which are considered one of the worst invasive species worldwide because they devour so much of the vegetation that native species need to thrive. As of 2013, they were established in 38 of Florida’s 67 counties.
Right now any Floridian can walk into any aquarium store or pet store and choose from a wide array of potentially threatening species, including iguanas, which are surging to the one of the top spots on Florida’s pest-invaders leader board. State wildlife officials should work together with the exotic-pet industry and look for ways to promote more responsible handling.
For species like lionfish, it’s also worth investing in the development of more effective capture and destruction methods.
Until then, things like the python bounty and lionfish challenge are a good way to remind Floridians of the havoc that non-native species can wreak.