INVADERS

FWC plans 'Guardians' assault in lionfish fight

By JOHN HOWELL The Daily Fray
November 16, 2014 5:14 pm

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When the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission gathers for a summit Nov. 20-21 in Key Largo, lionfish, manatee protection measures in Pinellas County, and red snapper will be on the hotlist.

In a luckless fight against lionfish, stewards of the sea agree: Humans in wetsuits with spears at their disposal are the only underwater authority that lionfish answer to.

And while FWC officials concede the aggressive Indo-Pacific invader is destabilizing coral reefs, ravaging native species and is not going away, no one is hanging up the Hawaiian Slings. The FWC will be proposing several public outreach programs, including a sea-grassroots effort called "Reef Guardians."

“Officially it’s not out yet but we’re looking to unveil it in the spring with a big blowout educational event, maybe with a derby component, just to get people aware of the lionfish [threat]," FWC spokeswoman Amanda Nalley said Sunday.

lionfishThe proposal, according to a 20-page report by FWC lionfish specialists Dan Ellinor, Meaghan Faletti and Michelle Sempsrott, is to “promote statewide public involvement in a long-term lionfish control initiative and encourage the use of lionfish reporting systems.”

Nalley acknowledged some sportsmen can be cagey with their favorite spots. Lionfish are often speared during  pursuit of bigger species, such as grouper, hogfish and mangrove snapper.

"But the reefs we're talking about people already know," Nalley said. "That doesn’t mean we’re going to stop anyone from going to their private spots and removing lionfish as well. "

Reef Guardians is similar to Adopt-A-Highway, Nalley said. Except the litter is lionfish. Reef Guardians will pledge to protect local reefs against lionfish and conduct monthly removals. Lionfish derbies and fishing tournaments will be in the mix. A lionfish safari in September at The Guy Harvey Outpost in St. Pete Beach, for example, attracted roughly 100 Suncoast divers who snared more than 500 of the pretty-looking little fiends.

The agenda for the fifth and final commissioners meeting of the year at the Hilton Resort will include workshops, testimony, reports and final action on multiple issues. The meeting is open to the public.

Commissioners are scheduled to vote on a recommendation for manatee protection zones in 21 areas along western Pinellas County waterways. The proposal is an effort to reverse an apparent upward trend in manatee strikes by watercraft.

Pinellas County, according to a FWC report prepared for the commissioners, ranks sixth in the state for most boat-related manatee deaths since 2006. The average number of lethal strikes in western Pinellas County from 2000-12 was six times greater than the average in the 1990s. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Pinellas County also signed off on the new safeguards, according to the 34-page report.

Also, discussions on the state red snapper season are expected to begin.

"No decision should be made on that but we’re hoping [the commissioners] will give us direction," Nalley said.

In October, the FWC voted against red snapper "sector separation" but the federal measure, Amendment 40, was approved by The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, 10-7. The action divided recreational fishing for red snapper into two formerly non-competing sectors — the charter boat captains and the average anglers.

The Council's roll-call vote in Mobile, Ala., included three Floridians who voted in favor of Amendment 40: vice-chairman Roy Williams of Tallahassee, Pamela Dana of Destin and John Sanchez of Homestead.

Martha Bademan of Tallahassee, representing the FWC, voted no. Representatives from Texas and Louisiana also opposed sector separation as a management solution for red snapper populations. On Oct. 20, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, a bipartisan group of 60 senators and 227 representatives — 12 from Florida — objected in a letter to the “Gulf Council’s fast-track of Amendment 40.”

The Fishing Rights Alliance, an organization based in St. Petersburg, plans to take the Gulf Council’s decision to court, according to its website.

“I can’t speak for how the commissioners are going to react to what happened [but] we were directed to vote against it," Nalley said. "And we did, based on comments we received that generally were not in favor of sector separation. It won’t be a decision-making event. It will basically be a discussion on what direction [the commission] wants us to go."


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