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International Waters: Florida Lionfish Bill Dead

Posted: August 1, 2014, 11:20 a.m. EDT


By John Dawes 

Over a quarter of a century ago the first Indo-Pacific lionfish (Pterois volitans and P. miles) were spotted in Florida waters. With no major predators, with water conditions suiting their lifestyle and reproductive cycle, and with an unlimited food supply, lionfish have spread along the western Atlantic and Caribbean coasts at an alarming rate.

In a move to prevent further introductions and arrest the spread, Senate Bill 1336 (the companion bill to identical House Bill 1069) "prohibiting the importation and aquaculture of lionfish and the sale of illegally imported lionfish” was filed by Florida Senator Greg Evers on Feb. 26, 2014. It underwent several steps required for its adoption until, on May 2, 2014, it "died in agriculture,” or was dropped at the meeting of the Florida Senate Committee of Agriculture. At press time, no explanation was available.

I believe the proposed bill was flawed.

While the bill referred to the banning of the genus Pterois, P. volitans and P. miles are the only two species that have exhibited invasive qualities. None of the other eight species, nor any of the five dwarf lionfish species (Dendrochirus spp), have ever been found in mainland U.S./Caribbean waters. Banning them all could therefore be seen as an oversimplistic and Draconian measure in the absence of any evidence supporting the imposition of a blanket prohibition on all species. After all, many other tropical marine species also could find Florida conditions just as suitable as lionfish, yet their importation is neither prohibited, nor likely to be. So why ban the whole Pterois genus? Many believe there’s no sense in such a move.

 Lionfish
Under SB 1336, imports of lionfish such as these, awaiting shipment at a Singapore exporter's premises, would be prohibited. John Dawes 

Let’s suppose that all Pterois lionfish were to be banned. Could this really have any effect on the current situation?

I think it would seem fair to say that lionfish are not the species that are imported in the largest numbers. They are not at the top of aquarists’ demand lists. But, even if they were, for these imported specimens to contribute in any detectable way to the current invasion, they would first have to be released into the wild. Yet, at best, only a miniscule number would be likely to experience such a fate. People want to keep lionfish, not release them.

True, the original small nucleus of lionfish that escaped in 1985 as a result of Hurricane Andrew went on to multiply beyond imagination, but the situation is quite different now. Prior to 1985, there were no lionfish (at least, no P. volitans) in U.S. or Caribbean waters, so any increase in numbers—especially after several generations—always was likely to have an impact locally, regionally and further afield. However, should any escapes or releases occur today, they would be likely to disappear or be absorbed within the existing populations without a trace and without causing any further explosions.

They might contribute vitality to the existing gene pool at a local level, but the overall pool now is likely to be quite diverse, bearing in mind the phenomena of chromosomal crossover and mutations that occur from generation to generation, added to the current extensive range of the species that dictates against backcrosses between individuals in widely separated locations. Any impact would very likely be much smaller than some might believe, or be even undetectable.

The text of HB 1069 and SB 1336, as stated earlier, refers to "prohibiting the importation and aquaculture of lionfish and the sale of illegally imported lionfish.” Shipments arising from, say, Singapore or Indonesia obviously constitute imports, but what about lionfish bought in other states (into which they are legally imported) and brought into Florida? Are these illegal as well? The proposed bill is unclear.

Despite numerous lionfish control/elimination programs set up over the years, positive effects are being experienced only locally, meaning that lionfish populations not subjected to local campaigns will remain unaffected and continue doing their thing.

Harvesting for home aquaria also is underway in some parts of Florida; this appears to not have any significant effect on total numbers. As lionfish do not top the demand list, overcollection at a level that could reduce overall numbers is, presumably, not taking place.

Further, the bill could negatively impact Florida shippers. If it had addressed only the two aforementioned species, then those Florida companies that ship fish to other states might be able to continue competing with their counterparts in other parts of the country, assuming that Florida-harvested P. miles and P. volitans could be marketed at competitive prices. Should all Pterois species be prohibited, then Florida shippers would be placed in a noncompetitive situation, because all other importers and shippers in the country would be free to import and sell all lionfish species unhindered.

We already have examples of such situations and their consequences, one of the most notable being that surrounding South American freshwater stingrays, in which Brazilian collectors and exporters are subjected to quotas while those in neighboring countries can collect and ship without limits. This has been seen as a commercial opportunity by Asian breeders, as a result of which they are now breeding large numbers of stingrays in captivity, with the undoubted losers being the Brazilians.

The fact that SB 1336, which was due to take effect on Aug. 1, 2014, is now dead must not be taken as a sign that its basic premise is being rejected by all. There is even a degree of support from some sources within the industry itself. What appears to have let it down are its many flaws. If this is the case, the bill might be dead—but not quite buried. It’s therefore possible that a better version could surface.

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