ISLAMORADA, United States (AFP) – Clad in a gray hooded wetsuit, Eric Billips straps on his scuba tank, grabs a pole spear and nods at his dive buddy as they step feet-first off the boat and disappear with a splash into sparkling blue waters off the Florida Keys.
The lionfish hunt is on.
Billips, 42, speared his first lionfish six years ago and estimates he has since killed thousands of the invasive, venomous predators, as their numbers have exploded across the western Atlantic and Caribbean.
But he isn’t sure what he will find in this particular spot, about four and a half miles (seven kilometres) offshore. A fisherman told him he’d snared a couple of lionfish on his hook and line there – which was unusual because they typically stalk their prey in the ocean depths and don’t chase bait on a line – and gave Billips the coordinates so he could find the area himself.
The divers descend 135 feet (about 40 metres), and see what looks like bridge debris – concrete and steel girders that someone dropped there long ago to create shelter and habitat for fish, and a custom fishing hole.
Billips kneels in the sand and begins to shoot. His weapon is equipped with a three-pronged trident tip that impales each lionfish. He pushes the speared fish into his shoulder-slung container – a narrow barrel with a one-way entry – and pulls the tip out, clean and ready to shoot again.
Twelve minutes later, Billips and his fellow diver resurface, grinning and breathless. They slide their containers onto the boat, each filled with more than a dozen fat, full-grown lionfish.
“It’s crazy. These lionfish, they have no fear,” says Billips, who owns the Islamorada Dive Center in the Florida Keys.
Two more divers go down to hunt, and soon they emerge with their own bounties. A cooler fills up with twitching red, orange and brown striped fish, some as long as 16 inches (40 centimetres).
Billips pauses for a quick review of the cooler contents, and counts about 50. Then he fires up the boat’s engine to bring his team to the next fishing spot.
Lionfish were first spotted off Dania Beach, Florida, in 1985. The fish are native to the Red Sea and the tropical Pacific, and are believed to have been introduced to the western Atlantic by people who let their aquarium fish go in the ocean.
Two species of lionfish – Pterois volitans, which is the most common, and Pterois miles — have officially become the first outsider finfish to establish a sizeable population in the waters off the United States. They can now be found in an area covering more than 1.5 million square miles (four million square kilometres) in the western Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
With 18 venomous spikes that can cause intense pain, and no natural enemies besides humans, these members of the scorpionfish family scare off any would-be predators.
Even sharks will not eat them. But lionfish will eat almost anything smaller than them, including valuable species like red porgy, vermilion snapper and fishes that consume algae off reefs and keep them healthy.