Florida's ban on imported lionfish, the first of its kind in the United States, went into effect Friday as a way to control the spread of this invasive species.
Anyone caught bringing the fish into the state will be charged a $1,000 fine and could face up to a year in prison.
Lionfish, native to Southeast Asia waters, were first spotted in 1985, Reuters reported, and supposedly arrived in the region as pets for aquariums. It is believed over time some were released into the wild.
"They're here to stay," said Roldan Muñoz, a researcher with the NOAA in North Carolina who studies the lionfish.
"If we can prevent more of them from getting dumped into the water ... as well as making it easier for people to harvest them it's a good start," he said.
The ban is one of several changes being made by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC). Other changes will make it easier for lionfish hunters to remove these poisonous, spiny creatures from local waters, according to the agency's website. Now divers can use an air-recycling device called a re-breather while spearfishing for lionfish. Approved tournaments featuring spearfishing for lionfish also will be allowed in certain state parks or refuges where spearfishing is otherwise prohibited.
Wildlife experts are concerned that lionfish, which have few known predators, will decimate other marine life native to the area. They live in waters 1,000 feet deep and feed on anything from shrimp to other fish.
In the mid-1990s they began spreading along Florida's east coast and now can be found year-round from the shores of Venezuela to North Carolina.
The FWC even encourages Florida residents to report sightings of these invasive lionfish using the "Report Florida Lionfish" app, which can be downloaded onto any smartphone, or by going on to the MyFWC.com website.
In September, the FWC will consider additional punishment for breeding lionfish.
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