Documentary targets invasive lionfish

A new documentary set to debut in Pensacola later this month looks at the growing threat invasive lionfish pose to Florida’s recreational fishing and seafood industries.

“Reef Assassin” explains how the colorful and venomous fish with lion-like manes of feathery fins have thrived in the waters off Florida since they were first dumped by aquarium collectors in the mid-1980s.

Three decades later, lionfish are a threat to most other species in waters stretching from the Caribbean Islands to the mid-Atlantic states of the U.S., said filmmaker Maribeth Abrams.

“It was very eye opening for me to be part of the investigation that we did for this project,” said Abrams, producer, editor and narrator of the Skyline Films project.

Abrams and her crew traveled throughout Florida and to Newfoundland, Canada, and Barbados while gathering information for the 55-minute film. Much of the filming happened in the Florida Panhandle — the region considered to be Florida’s lionfish capital because of the high numbers of the fish found in area waters.

More:Gaetz takes lionfish fight to federal waters

The film draws parallels between the collapse of Newfoundland’s cod fishing industry decades ago to the present-day threat posed by lionfish to native fisheries around Florida.

“Because of over-fishing, the fish that were being caught were not being replaced. We talked to people (in Newfoundland) who lived through the collapse, and they describe a very, very bleak situation,” she said. “We look at what happened when a culture that is dependent on fishing no longer has fish to catch.”

Among those interviewed for the project was Robert Turpin, Escambia County’s director of marine resources.

Turpin, who is helping organize Pensacola’s third annual Lionfish Roundup event on May 20 and 21, said some progress is being made in the lionfish fight.

Area spear fishermen collected more than 8,000 lionfish from Pensacola-area reefs during the 2016 Lionfish Roundup, he said.

More:From De Luna to lionfish, UWF videos highlight the Gulf

And, Turpin said, researchers are coming up with better ways to trap lionfish in deep waters.

Lionfish cannot be caught with a traditional rod and reel. The best way to remove them is through spear fishing, which is expensive and labor intensive.

“The traps have been a source of great optimism, at least in my mind, because they can more effectively remove the lionfish compared with scuba divers whose bottom time is limited by air capacity,” he said.

And traps can access deeper waters that are out of reach for divers, he said.

Also interviewed for the film was Candy Hansard, president of the Destin-based Emerald Coast Reef Association. The nonprofit encouraged the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to enact its Panhandle Pilot Program, which provides tags allowing divers who collect large numbers of lionfish to collect greater numbers of desirable fish like cobia and red grouper.

Hansard is also supporting efforts by U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, to extend the program to federally controlled waters farther off the Florida coast.

But, Hansard said, the state and federal government should provide lionfish harvesters with even more tags for commercially desirable fish, including red snapper, trigger fish and amber jack. And the tags should be provided year round, not just when the season for a specific species is open, she said.

“What we are trying to do is to have our state and federal leaders wage an all-out war on the lionfish. In order to do that, we are going to have to recruit tens of thousands of divers to go out and slaughter fish aggressively, but right now there isn’t really any motivation for them to that,” she said.

ARCHIVE CONTENT:Lionfish Challenge puts dent in population

Hansard said rewarding lionfish harvesters by allowing them to bring in greater numbers of commercially desirable fish appears to be the best option for curbing lionfish growth, she said.

The lionfish, native to the waters of the Indo-Pacific region, is a voracious eater that lays millions of eggs and has no known predators in the Gulf of Mexico. Lionfish devour the fry of native fish species, including grouper, red snapper and trigger fish and juvenile shrimp and crabs.

“The crisis is so huge that if we don’t take very aggressive action very quickly, we are risking catastrophic damage to our native fisheries and everyone who depends on those fisheries, from charter fishing to commercial fishing,” Hansard said. “We are talking billions of dollars in economic destruction.”

The Pensacola debut of “Reef Assassin” is scheduled for 7 p.m. May 20 at Hagler Auditorium on the campus of Pensacola State College.

The filmmakers plan to film a panel discussion with questions from the audience following the film screening. Portions of that could be used in the followup documentary, the filmmakers said.

Family faults instructor – Sharkwater Stewart Death

The family of award-winning “Sharkwater” filmmaker and marine biologist, Rob Stewart, has filed a lawsuit claiming damages and blaming Stewart’s dive instructor and boat crew for his death.

Stewart went missing off the coast of the Florida Keys in January. His body was recovered after a three-day search by the Coast Guard.





Now, two months after Stewart’s death, the Canadian filmmaker’s grieving parents, Brian and Sandy Stewart, sat down with ABC News, along with their attorney Michael Haggard, to discuss the tragic incident.

“The is no way anyone should ever die the way Rob died and it’s the responsibility of the people involved that caused it,” said Brian Stewart. “Had somebody had their eyes on the water,” he continued, “you keep your eyes on the people in the water and of all things the student comes out first, not the diver.”

The complaint says that Stewart and his instructor, Peter Sotis, were diving the Queen of Nassau wreck to remove a grappling hook that had been attached to the underwater wreckage for navigational purposes to mark the wreck and assist in maintaining its location while divers were in the water. The hook was located 230-feet below the surface of the water off the coast of Islamorada, Florida.

Sotis and Stewart used new rebreathers — a piece of scuba diving equipment that controls the mix of oxygen supplied to the diver by recycling exhaled breath– for their dive. When Sotis reportedly resurfaced to board the boat due to issues breathing, he received “emergency aid,” while supervisors failed to “monitor, keep eyes on, and/or rescue” Stewart, according to the complaint.

“So many things went wrong,” said Sandy Stewart. “So many careless mistakes were made and [Rob] would want to make sure this didn’t happen to anyone else again.”

The family’s attorney told ABC News that those allegedly negligent actions are what led to the disappearance and death of their son. “The only reason Peter Sotis is alive today is he left his student in the water —- which is a cardinal sin in the diving industry,” Haggard said.

“He didn’t protect the student, he got on the boat and left his student in the water,” Haggard continued. “It’s so preventable that it’s scary.”

Sotis and the boat crew did not reply to ABC News’ request for comment.

Actor Adrian Grenier and entrepreneur Richard Branson posted emotional tributes on social media to Stewart after his death.





Brian Stewart said his son’s legacy will continue to live on. The Stewarts told ABC News they intend to finish shooting their son’s sequel and hope his story inspires others to explore.

“He always used to take off and go to another part of the world with his camera,” he said. “To us, a little part that makes me go on is the fact that he is still off shooting.”

He added, “Somehow what he wants done is going to be done.”


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