by Jeremy Morrison
After filleting the fresh ice chest full of lionfish, the divers examined the collection of stomach contents scattered across the cutting board.
“That’s a razor fish, we’ve got rock shrimp, we’ve got squid,” said Alex Fogg, pointing to each specimen with his knife. “They’re generalist feeders, they’ll eat almost anything they can find.”
An impressive pile of fillets sits to the side. Allie Sifrit packs them neatly into Ziplock baggies. Flippers and wetsuits dry in the sun. There’s a cookout planned for later on.
This dock-side scene plays out with increasing frequency lately, as area divers work to clear the invasive lionfish from the Gulf. But these divers are looking for a little more than a tasty meal and sense of environmental stewardship. They’re on a mission.
Fogg is volunteering for the Pensacola-based Coast Watch Alliance, and also works for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission’s Division of Marine Fisheries. Perhaps more notable, at least within the region’s lionfish community, he’s a renown, record-holding lionfish hunter and associated with the widely circulated Lionfish Airplane video, which features a swarm of the beautiful, but detrimentally-invasive fish off of Pensacola’s coast.
Sifrit is the 2016 American Association of Underwater Scientists intern. She’s working with Dr. Scott Noakes, an associate research scientist with the University of Georgia.
These folks think about lionfish a lot.
“I dreamt about it last night,” Sifrit said.
“Waking up screaming,” joked Fogg.
“My wife will tell you, my neighbor will tell you — ‘What’s he doing out in the garage with all that PVC tubing!’” laughed Dr. Steve Gittings.
Gittings is the reason everyone is here. He’s the science coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Sanctuary Program. And he may be getting closer to hitting upon a successful lionfish trap.
“This is the first time they’ve been really tested for catchability,” Gittings said as he stood on the dock behind Scuba Shack in downtown Pensacola.
The scientist was in town this week to test out his trap design. He’s been working on the design for the past couple of years down in Little Cayman, but that region didn’t offer particularly plentiful hunting grounds.
“But out here it’s mostly open bottom,” Gittings explained, “and there’s a lot of lionfish. A hotbed.”
Lionfish, an invasive, voracious species that poses a great threat to fisheries, have thus far proven an elusive target for traps. Aside from the scant bycatch pulled up in lobster traps, the fish have to be speared by divers, making both ecological and commercial efforts laborious and expensive.
Gittings hopes to change that. He pulls out a notebook and rattles off the data collected from the week. It’s encouraging.
“You gotta like those numbers,” he smiled.
Over the course of the week, Gittings and his fellow divers worked to put out a series of the traps he’s designed. They located them varying distances from groups of lionfish congregating around debris.
Gittings wanted to see how many of the lionfish would move from the source structure to the traps. And how many would go inside the trap. And how long that would take.
Within hours lionfish were moving toward the traps. After two days, a percentage were inside.
Gittings works the numbers in his notebook.
“That’s a third of the fish that were near the source would have been caught,” he said. “I’m not gonna complain about that.”
Gittings’ traps consist of a frame of PVC tubing, some buckets, and a curtain that raises and lowers. He has worked to ensure bycatch is avoided and calls the overall concept “super simple.”
The NOAA scientist plans to continue working on his design. Maybe enlarge its footprint, maybe simplify it further. But ultimately he hopes others will do their own tweaking.
“A fisherman will figure this out — give’em a few prototypes,” Gittings said.
The scientist notes that there are multiple efforts afoot to design something that traps lionfish in some significant number. There are light sensitive traps, and ones that are equipped with a camera. There’s a design out there for a submarine that sucks up the fish, churns them to chum and spits them out.
The commercial incentive for an effective trap is large. The need for divers to handpick lionfish makes them prohibitively expensive and has stalled efforts to launch the species onto the seafood market. Plus, divers barely go beyond hundred feet deep, whereas lionfish can go to a thousand.
Gittings said his work wasn’t getting much attention yet from the commercial side of the equation.
“Nope, not yet,” he said. “We haven’t showed that it works yet. No one thinks there’s any lionfish traps that work. And I’m not ready to say our’s works yet.”
But if his efforts are successful, Gittings expects the market to take care of the rest.
“If it ends up working, then the fishermen can perfect the design,” he said. “Leave that to the fishermen.”
Gittings said that he will return in the future to further test his trap design, potentially conducting tests in deeper waters. Until then, he is working with Coast Watch Alliance to monitor the traps he’s left behind.