National invasive lionfish control plan blasted as ‘too little, too late’

MURRELLS INLET, SC – The Council for Sustainable Fishing, a nonprofit advocacy group for commercial and recreational fishing interests, Wednesday criticized a draft national plan to address the growing lionfish invasion in U.S. southeastern waters for being late, short on funding, and weak on implementation.

“This plan has taken nearly four years to develop, while the lionfish invasion continues full bore in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, endangering reef ecology and valuable fisheries,” Council for Sustainable Fishing Executive Director Tom Swatzel said. “Other countries and even some U.S. national marine sanctuaries and parks have had lionfish control plans in place for years. I’m afraid it may be too little, too late to control the invasion, potentially putting the fishing industry at peril.”

A draft National Invasive Lionfish Prevention and Management Plan, started in 2011, was released by the federal Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force for public comment in December. The comment period ends January 26th.

According to the plan, responsibility for implementation and funding would fall to ten different federal agencies – from NOAA to the U.S. Geological Survey -- at an estimated annual cost of $22 million.

“This plan hinges on implementation by committee, a sure way for inaction and a recipe for unaccountability. It would be best for one agency, such as NOAA, to have responsibility for implementation,” Swatzel said.

Swatzel points out that NOAA spent more money -- $25 million in FY 2014 -- promoting and developing privatization of fisheries through “catch share” programs than is being proposed to address the lionfish invasion.

“Spending money to promote privatization of fisheries doesn’t provide any biological benefit to fisheries. It’s a waste. If we’re serious about lionfish control, serious money needs to be invested in developing lionfish harvesting methods that are much more efficient than a diver spearing one lionfish at a time,” Swatzel said. “Highly valuable commercial and recreational snapper-grouper fisheries are at stake.”

Lionfish are rarely caught on hook and line. Most landings are by divers with spear guns.

Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific. The first U.S. sightings were off Florida in 1985. Lionfish are now well established in the South Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean.

Lionfish have no known predators because of their venomous spines and feed voraciously on juvenile snapper and grouper. A study in the Bahamas reported an 80 percent reduction in native fish over a five-week period on an isolated reef inhabited by lionfish. They reproduce rapidly with females releasing up to 30,000 eggs per spawn and spawning up to three times per month. (Click here for additional information.)

Lionfish are becoming highly sought after by restaurants. Commercial spear fishermen are getting over $5 a pound for lionfish, comparable with snapper and grouper.

“Devoting resources to develop more efficient means of lionfish harvesting is a win-win for both commercial fishermen, who have been financially impacted by growing fishery regulations, and for the protection of our important reef fish from lionfish predation,” Swatzel said.

The Council for Sustainable Fishing represents commercial and recreational fishermen, seafood dealers and wholesalers, restaurateurs, and chefs in the South Atlantic region. The mission of the CFSF is to optimize and sustaining fishing opportunities for commercial and recreational fishermen to aid the coastal economy of the region and ensure stable seafood availability to consumers.

The CFSF website is Sustainablefishing.org

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Council for Sustainable Fishing