Chris Shaffer was diving off Sarasota at a depth of 130 feet. His equipment included a Kudana speargun, custom-designed in polished Burmese teak by local craftsman Stuart Daneman. And like most divers in the third Suncoast Spearfishing Challenge at Marina Jack this past weekend, Shaffer was aiming mostly for grouper, hogfish and mangrove snapper, anything big.There were scores of lionfish, too, Shaffer said. But lionfish, which average 12-15 inches, will never bust a weigh-in scale and only counted for bonus points in the Challenge. Then, out of the deep blue, there it was -- and a little too close.
“I didn’t want it next to me, I can tell you that,” said Shaffer, 45, from Sarasota.
Shaffer aimed and released the trigger. The shaft punctured a 17½- inch lionfish, a record for the Gulf of Mexico and 1 inch short of the unofficial world record.
“And right after I shot it, put it in the bag, and got done with that struggle,” Shaffer said, “ I looked up and had a moon jelly land right on my face. I got stung all over and started thinking, that’s not good.”
Well, yes and no.
The effort by Shaffer to terminate the lionfish – an increasingly destructive invasive species in Florida waters and elsewhere – is appreciated by caretakers of the sea, including the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.“If you think about natural selection, about evolution of species, and survival of the fittest, lionfish really are a very well-adapted species, especially in their new habitat,” said Meaghan Faletti, an environmental specialist for the FWC. “They out-compete other fish in many aspects.”
And that's the problem for Florida, Faletti said. Lionfish, native in the South Pacific and Indian oceans, are commandeering native habitats. Young lionfish devour crustaceans and diminish small shrimp populations, ultimately harming industry and jobs.
“And once they get older, they’re not very particular about what they eat,” Faletti said. “They eat pretty much anything they can fit in their mouth.”
Faletti, a Florida State graduate in marine biology, coordinates the lionfish outreach program for the FWC. The initiative, “Be the Predator!," formed in July and encourages divers, anglers and commercial harvesters to remove lionfish at every opportunity.
So far, Faletti said, there is modest success at the end of a spear.
“On a local scale, these derbies have shown to be effective for localized control,” Faletti said. “But as far as the broader picture, there are a lot of other areas that need to be targeted.”
The idea for “Be the Predator!” emerged when the FWC called for a Lionfish Summit in August 2013. Everyone with a stake in the scrum against lionfish was invited to the three-day brainstorming session. The 127 participants included local government officials, members of diving and spearfishing organizations, recreational anglers, commercial fishermen, academics, and leaders of marine environmental groups.
The goal was to develop a coalition with a plan to protect Florida’s native fish and wildlife populations and habitats, and head off economic consequences.
As a line of defense, divers with spears were naturals.
The Challenge attracted 158 contestants, up from 108 last year, said Captain Chris Barton, the tournament director. Many went out despite a small craft advisory that was in effect for a portion of the 24-hour derby.
“We have guys from Georgia down to Fort Myers competing," Barton said. “A lot of times here the lionfish are out on the wrecks and on ridges. But there are a whole lot of other species that we’re going after.”
Aaron Kennedy, 32, of Sarasota was in the weigh-in line with a nice haul of mangrove snapper and hogfish. In addition was a lonely-looking 12-inch lionfish.
“Just doing our part to get rid of them,” Kennedy said.