CHASSAHOWITZKA - It's strange to think the emerging face of danger for Florida's commercial and recreational fishing industry has segmented eyes.
But this vibrantly colored, venomous species from the Indo-Pacific didn't give itself the nickname lionfish, and unfortunately, for a wide range of prey in the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic and Caribbean, it lives up to the name.
"I'm hoping that doesn't reach as far north as us, because that could be detrimental," said Capt. Steven Soults of "Angling Adventures" in Spring Hill, who specializes in deep sea and offshore bottom fishing in Hernando, Pasco and Citrus counties. "If it comes up here - we don't need any more kicks in the you-know-where."
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the non-native, invasive species was first spotted off the Atlantic Coast in 1985 and has been rapidly increasing since then, even as far north as Rhode Island. In the U.S., lionfish are now as abundant as many native grouper species in the Atlantic Ocean, according to the USGS.
"That is the mystery," said Amanda Nalley, public information specialist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "There's a lot of theories as to how they got in our waters, but no one really knows for sure."
It could have been a release from someone who had one in their aquarium, Nalley said, or an accidental release via hurricane or flood, or the fish could have traveled long distances after getting stuck in a boat shipping container.
Whatever the case, lionfish hunt economically important snapper and grouper, have few known predators and have poisonous spines that in rare instances have been know to cause death in humans with weakened immune systems.
"The lionfish issue is such a broad issue because it's not just how it affects those two species: It's affecting more than just their wildlife, but their habitat," said Nalley. "This is a species that goes to a reef, eats everything up and moves on to the next reef.
"Their population is unchecked, they breed extremely fast, have no predators that we know of or that are consistent, and they eat pretty much everything that would be on that reef fish-wise."
Last August, a temporary rule went into effect allowing Floridians to capture or kill lionfish without a recreational fishing license, provided specific gear like certain spears and nets were used and all other laws were abided by, according to Nalley.
"That rule is set to expire this August, and what we did at our last meeting was put that temporary rule into our actual rule, so that come August that rule will still be in place well into the future," Nalley said. "Basically, we adopted that temporary rule and made it permanent."
That's because lionfish numbers are not only increasing, but the FWC is also seeing them in places they never used to, Nalley said.
Since the mid-1980s, the fish has gone in a "U" - from east to west around the state of Florida, appearing most recently in the northern areas of the Gulf of Mexico like the Panhandle and all the way across to Texas.
There's been one confirmed sighting of lionfish in 2011 in the national wildlife preserve, Chassahowitzka, and the only county in Florida that has prohibited spear fishing in state waters since the 1950s - Collier - has found reason to lift that ban starting this past Sunday.
"So you have someone who was out hook and line fishing in state waters and catches a lionfish," Nalley said. "They went to the Collier County Commission and asked for the removal of these provisions that said you couldn't spearfish in state waters. Their population is growing unchecked. Lionfish are really hard to catch on hook and line. Really, the best thing at this point, as far as removal, is by spearing or handheld net."
Monday marked the official beginning of grouper and scallop season, and local, long-standing charter fishing captains have only fortunate news to report about this year's season along the Pasco, Hernando and Citrus coastline.
"A lot of the captains they're telling me, 'Do you guys have that lionfish yet? Those guys are a pain,'" Soults said. "I hope they stay away, but I can honestly say to you we have caught more gag grouper this year than any other year in business. I can't say there's any decline at all in gag grouper.
"In 40 feet, it's kind of uncommon to catch them that shallow, and I don't know if those lionfish are out further and pushing them in, but the only bad thing I can say about this year is the weather."
If there's a man besides Soults in Hernando County who knows the water it's probably his co-worker Capt. Frank Bourgeois, of "Always Fishing."
Bourgeois has been dealing in charter fishing for more than 50 years, has been full-time in Hernando County since 1991 and has the longest running charter fishing service in the county, he said.
"And I've never seen a lionfish out there," Bourgeois said. "Every trip I go out there, we're catching 30-40 grouper.
"We've had zero problems with lionfish in this area."
And when it comes time for red snapper season, the Hernando County coastline is a different kind of fishing than on the Atlantic side because of its depth, or lack of it, Bourgeois said.
"Red snapper season doesn't hardly affect us at all, because it's at 60 feet, and that's 100 to 200 miles out," he said. "These grouper, we catch them in 20-30 feet of water, and it's a lot, lot more fun in the shallow water for grouper than the deep water. In the deep water, you bring up a sack of potatoes, but here they fight all the way up to the boat."
Lionfish spines are venomous and can sting you if touched, but those can be cooked off, and lionfish meat is non-venomous and edible, Nalley said, and while it appears there's more opportunity than ever for Floridians to net or spear lionfish, that opportunity appears unlikely to happen in Hernando County any time soon.