MIAMI (Reuters) - As thousands of Floridians take to the sea to hunt for spiny lobster in the state's two-day lobster mini-season, they are being warned by authorities not to catch under-size specimens or exceed strict catch quotas.
But no such limits exist for the equally prickly -- but dangerous -- lionfish, which wildlife authorities are encouraging local divers to capture or kill at will to try to stamp out the voracious invading species from Florida waters.
The gaudy white and reddish brown-striped lionfish are equipped with an array of flaring venomous spines like a lion's mane, hence their name. They are native to Indo-Pacific seas, but have been rapidly expanding in Caribbean and Atlantic waters, where they have few natural predators.
Marine biologists in Florida say they are gobbling up natives species, including members of the snapper and grouper families, and posing a threat to the fauna of the southern U.S. state's world-famous coral reefs.
Florida's wildlife and marine park authorities, as well as conservation groups, are seeking the help of the enthusiastic army of amateur lobster hunters during the Wednesday-Thursday mini-season to try to blunt the invasion of lionfish.
"We want to get rid of them, basically, we want them dead," said Zachary Bamman, who was attending a lionfish reporting hotline on Wednesday operated by the Key Largo-based nonprofit organization, Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF).
"They pose a huge threat to the reef because they eat all the reef fish, and economically important marine species like grouper and snapper, lobster and shellfish," he told Reuters.
SPILLED FROM AQUARIUM
U.S. government researchers believe the red lionfish was introduced into Florida waters during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 when an aquarium broke and at least six fish spilled into Miami's Biscayne Bay.
The anti-lionfish offensive was being fully supported by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and by local marine sanctuaries like Biscayne National Park.
"We do hope ... that we can keep on top of this invasion and circumvent the issues associated with other South Florida exotic species invasions like pythons and iguanas," Biscayne National Park Fisheries biologist Vanessa McDonough said in a posting on the park's website. Nonnative pythons and iguanas have also invaded Florida's vast Everglades reserve.
Divers could either spear the lionfish, or net then, freeze them in iced water and send them in to wildlife authorities for research. Alternatively, they were asked to report sightings.
But they were also urged to beware the lionfish's array of spines, tipped with a venom that can cause severe pain, swelling, nausea, headaches and convulsions. The sting is not fatal, but some victims have been hospitalized.
"It is painful, the only way to denature the venom is through heat application," Bamman said.
McDonough said in her posting that the lionfish were generally unafraid of divers, which made them easy to capture.
While there were no limits on the lionfish, authorities were strictly enforcing established restrictions on the lobster hunters in the Wednesday-Thursday mini-season, which each year precedes the Aug 6-March 31 commercial lobster harvest.
Mini-season divers are limited to a catch of up to 12 lobsters per day in most Florida waters, but only six per person in Monroe County and Biscayne National Park. Lobsters taken must have a tail carapace of over three inches (7.6 cm).
Even without the venomous lionfish, the two-day lobster rush can be hazardous. Four people died last year -- at least one from a heart attack, while one was hit by a boat.
(Editing by Sandra Maler)
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