While fishing in about 10 feet of water on the hard-bottom reef patches just 200 yards from shore near the Ritz Carlton, Mike Damanski confirmed the inevitable when something unexpected showed up on the end of his line.
Damanski, who was out fishing with his mom and some friends for his birthday last week, landed a "15- or 16-ounce" red lionfish. The photo soon made the rounds on Facebook, unbeknown to Damanski that it was the first documented case of the species within the state water boundary of Collier County, according to the U.S. Geological Survey's Nonindigenous Aquatic Species database.
"When I pulled the lionfish up I don't think anybody expected it," Damanski said. "I know they are destroying our reefs so we killed it and tossed it in the cooler."
Make no mistake: lionfish are pigeons with a peacock's plumage. And once they arrive, they can cause irreparable harm to the fragile underwater ecosystem. Lionfish have a voracious appetite, and will eat nearly anything that they can fit into their mouths. The fish can easily wipe out a population of juvenile fish that rely on the reef habitat for protection, and compete with native species such as snapper or the commercially crucial grouper for resources.
Bryan Fluech, director of the Collier County Sea Grant program, points out that once a population of lionfish has moved in, the existing marine life on a reef can be reduced by 80 percent in just a few weeks.
"Many species were affected, including cardinal fish, parrot fish, damselfish and others," he said. "Research in the Bahamas has documented consumption of juvenile economically important fish. Therefore, the potential to upset the natural balance of coral reef ecosystems is very real. "
It was only a matter of time before the invasive species showed up in local water. The ornately decorated fish with bright crimson stripes and long — yet venomous — pectoral and dorsal fins have long been a prized species for marine aquarium enthusiasts. However they made it from their native habitat of the Indian and South Pacific oceans to the Caribbean in the mid-1980s, there is no doubt that the lionfish have spread like a plague over the last decade.
Besides its aesthetic attributes, one thing that made the lionfish a popular aquarium species is its hardiness and ability to adapt to a variety of habitats. Reports of lionfish have now surfaced along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean as far north as Narragansett, R.I., and along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico all the way to the southernmost tip of Texas.
The Florida Keys, considered the epicenter of the invasion in North America since the first fish was reported in January 2009, has had approximately 30,000 documented cases, according to the Keys-based Reef Environmental Education Foundation. Those numbers continue to grow, although the extent of their population is difficult to gauge.
"One of our biggest concerns is how quickly they spread. When they come into an area, they take over," Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesperson Amanda Nalley said.
"One of the reasons it is difficult to estimate population numbers is because they also found in depths that are well beyond SCUBA range, which can lead to a very large underestimation of their numbers," Fluech said. "Navy submarines have reported sightings in over 500 feet. Also, because of their cryptic nature, it's hard to get an accurate count even if they are in shallow waters."
Although there have been reports of lionfish outside the state water boundary (federal water begins nine miles from the shoreline), the local waters of Collier could be especially vulnerable to the species.
Although natural structure isn't as prevalent as other points along Florida's coast, there are several hard-bottom patch reefs locally — like just off Wiggins Pass State Park — as well as artificially created reefs and other structure like discarded vessels or shipwrecks. The limited structure in local waters makes any available site prime real estate for lionfish to open a spawning ground.
"There have been confirmed reports 75 and 100 miles out. Counties further north — Lee and Charlotte for example — have had them much closer before. I wouldn't be surprised if we have had them closer, too, but they just weren't spotted," Fluech said.
"I can tell you that every dive I have done, there has been lionfish," said Bill D'Antuono, president of the Naples Spearfishing League. "This includes the Baja California wreck 60 miles offshore of Gordon's Pass, and the ledges at 30 and 15 miles."
Combined with a rapid reproduction rate and a year-round spawning season, eradicating them has proved to be a Sisyphean task anywhere the fish has been allowed to gain a foothold.
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There are several theories as to why the lionfish took so long to appear in the waters just off Collier County.
One study conducted on reefs in the Caribbean by the University of Queensland in 2011 found an inverse relationship between the amount