Today the Florida Senate’s Lionfish Bill (SB 1336) was referred to the Environmental Preservation and Conservation, Commerce and Tourism and Agriculture Committees. An identical bill (HB 1069) was also filed in the House but has yet to be referred to committee. These bills represent state lawmakers initial efforts to ban both the importation and aquaculture of all fishes from the genus Pterois after two invasive Indo-Pacific species of lionfish (P. miles and P. volitans) became established in Florida waters. Biologists fear the invasive lionfish are capable of permanently impacting native reef fish communities. If either of these bills becomes law, it would set a groundbreaking precedent with the potential for wide-ranging impacts on the aquarium trade and the State’s ornamental aquaculture industry.
Representative Holly Raschein (R-Key Largo) and Senator Greg Evers (R- Pensacola) filed the bills on the heels of last October’s Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC)’s Lionfish Summit in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Speaking prior to the summit, FWC Executive Director Nick Wiley said, “The expansion of lionfish populations represents a serious threat to marine ecosystems in Florida. Dealing with this highly invasive, nonnative species and the negative impacts on our environment and economy will require a strong cooperative effort among government agencies and affected stakeholders. All ideas are welcome in discovering new ways to help control lionfish populations, educate the public, mitigate the effects lionfish have on native species, and understand their impacts.”
In addition to banning the importation and aquaculture of any species in the genus, the bill would also prohibit the sale within the state of illegally imported lionfish. It appears it would remain legal to keep a previously imported lionfish in an aquarium. It also appears as if a locally harvested lionfish could be legally traded within the State or even exported to other states. In fact, some proponents of the bills have argued increased aquarium trade demand in the face of a ban on imports may actually help hasten the removal of lionfish from state waters.
While critics generally support the spirit of the bills, some worry the current language may be too broad. For example, some wonder if it is necessary to include all 10 species of lionfish in the genus, when only two species have proven invasive in state waters. “We need to decide how far we are willing to go when it comes to banning the importation of a species based on what we think it might do,” said one aquarium trade insider who spoke under conditions of anonymity. Some believe banning the aquaculture of all Pterois species is also an over-reaction that could have unintended consequences.
While the current bills only address the State of Florida, the lionfish problem extends northward along the Southeast coast of the U.S., throughout the Caribbean, and most recently, into the Gulf of Mexico and South America.
Florida’s legislative session runs from through 2 May.