By Kevin Wadlow
Dropping 80 to 100 feet under the ocean surface to start her day’s work, Rachel Lynn Bowman often zeroes in on several invasive lionfish. “It’s a double-edged sword when we see a lot of them,” Bowman said Friday. “I know it’s going to be a good payday. Then I think: What all those lionfish are eating?”
“There are places in the Bahamas where, because of lionfish, there are no more parrotfish,” she said. “And we need parrotfish. “The state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has honored a Marathon-based team of spearfishers formed by Adolphus Busch IV as its Reef Rangers Team of the Week for removing about 7,500 lionfish from Keys waters in 2014.” Averaging three dives a day, four days a week, Adolphus, Rachel and their friends [including Chase Grimes, Jonny Schrier and Willie Dominak] brought in an estimated 7,500 fish in 2014, supplying local restaurants with their catch to help promote a commercial lionfish industry and to take pressure off of other species,” the FWC says.
The state launched its Reef Rangers Lionfish Control Program “to protect Florida reefs against the effects from the Indo-Pacific lionfish invasion. “The volunteer program helps the state monitor numbers and locations of lionfish, and directs divers away from reefs where divers already have removed lionfish. “We’re out there every day, weather permitting,” Bowman said. “I get to spend every day underwater with magnificent creatures, and I’m spearfishing with other guys who are amazing divers and spearfishermen, unbelievably good at what they do.
“Busch, a noted businessman who funded the sinking of the Adolphus Busch shipwreck reef off the Big Pine Key, has been an avid lionfish stalker since the species was first identified in the Keys six years ago. “Adolphus is a realistic conservationist who wants to preserve our environment so that we will be able to continue to enjoy and use it,” Bowman said. “He’s very dedicated and doesn’t miss a shot when spearfishing. “The commercial spearfishers sell their catch to local restaurants that offer tasty lionfish filets as a unique delicacy.An invasive Pacific species, lionfish have upset the natural ecosystem on many Caribbean and Florida reefs. They breed quickly and eat voraciously. Armed with more than dozen venomous spines, lionfish have apparently no natural predators in the Atlantic Ocean.
“We need to eat ’em to beat ’em,” Bowman laughed. “We target the deeper waters where the lionfish are more plentiful — at least until we get there,” Bowman said. “We’ve seen a steady decline in the areas we fish. Commercial fishermen tell us they aren’t seeing as many lionfish in their traps. If anyone says we’re not making a difference, I know commercial lobster fishermen who will tell you differently. “Bringing in a day’s catch of lionfish has its hazards.”I’ve been stuck many times; I’m like a lionfish pincushion,” Bowman said. “There’s a big difference between a sting and a prick. “A prick is no worse than a wasp sting. A lionfish sting — I can’t imagine a worse pain,” Bowman said. “I probably get four stings a year and sometimes I don’t come out of the house for two days.” She added, “Once I got started [catching lionfish], I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
The FWC, which has taken several regulatory steps to promote lionfish harvests, holds its first statewide Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day on May 16.In the Florida Keys, the Postcard Inn Beach Resort and Marina in Islamorada (at the former Holiday Isle Resort at mile marker 84) hosts a slate of lionfish-awareness events and activities beginning at 4 p.m. Divers or snorkelers who bring in at least one lionfish will be entered into a drawing for prizes, including a resort stay. Unlike a lionfish derby, there will not prizes for most or biggest lionfish. “This way everybody has a chance to win,” said Reef Environmental and Education Foundation’s Lad Akins, a leading lionfish expert. “There are a lot of local heroes out there doing a great job of lionfish removal. “The free May 16 event will include fileting lessons for lionfish and lionfish tasting.