By John Tapley; photos courtesy Texas Lionfish Control Unit
For years, waters along the southeastern United States have been besieged by an influx of Indo-Pacific lionfish: an apex predator feared for its voracious appetite and venomous spines. Lionfish have played havoc with coastal communities, disrupting already fragile aquatic environments; and while human intervention has slowed the menace, the creatures’ numbers continue to grow exponentially.
Answering the call for controlling lionfish populations in the Gulf Coast is the Texas Lionfish Control Unit (TLCU): a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, which actively seeks out the invasive predators, works with scientific organizations, and educates future hunters for the long battle ahead. TLCU was founded in 2014 by scuba diver Brady Hale.
We spoke with Hale about the origins of the TLCU, its successes, and what it hopes to accomplish in the future.
John Tapley (JT): What was your inspiration for founding the TLCU?
Brady Hale (BH): I was working full-time at a dive shop as a general manager, and I was running a trip down to the Florida Keys at a Guy Harvey Outpost Resort. They were working with an organization [to hold] a lionfish derby, and I thought it was something cool for my customers to get involved in. I didn’t know a thing about lionfish other than what I read in magazines or online. I called them and talked to them about it, and it raised more questions than answers. Guy Harvey announced they would be at the Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day Festival in Pensacola. A friend and I took off down there.
I wanted to get the trip paid for, so I contacted a friend at Triad Diving Supply and pitched her an idea: these two yahoos from Texas who didn’t know about lionfish got a hold of a Trident catalogue. They gave us advice on gear, and we went to the tournament but we didn’t win. [Later] I got a call from Ali, founder of Zookeeper Lionfish Containment Units; he gave us a couple Zookeepers and took us under his wing.
We showed up in Pensacola and it ended up being the largest lionfish event Florida had held. Ali introduced us to all the big-wigs – the who’s who of the lionfish world – and everyone assumed I knew what I was doing. The tournament was blown out because of weather and so I decided for a couple days. It’s the last night of the event and I’m talking with Dan Ellinor with the Florida Wildlife Commission. He asked me how long I’d hunted lionfish and I told him we hadn’t seen one. I told him the story and he paid for our diving for two days – we had a blast, shooting 89 lionfish.
On the way home my buddy and I talked about how nobody’s really doing anything about the lionfish problem in Texas. On that trip, we decided to form the team: the Texas Lionfish Eradication Unit, which we quickly changed to Texas Lionfish Control Unit. We started to figure out what our mission could be and what our role in this is.
JT: And what is that mission?
BH: I came up with three tenants for the team: action, education, and research. The action part is where we actively hunt lionfish, and we’re proud of being good hunters that can produce. The education side is important because that’s what Texas lacked (with the exception of a few magazines and articles, nobody was giving the public active information) so we wanted to put together a program to take to dive clubs and civic organizations, and give them accurate, scientifically valid information. On the research side… not being marine biologists ourselves we knew we couldn’t fully do the research ourselves. We gather and hunted lionfish for various letter organizations for data collection on size, weight, depth, temperature, and time.
We also run eco tours and trips to Pensacola quite frequently – about every month or so – and they include the action and education tenants at the same time. We take divers who have never hunted lionfish or who don’t know how to, and we take them out, providing gear and getting in the water with them: showing them how to hunt lionfish; working on techniques. It gives them the confidence and skills they need to be able to go without us. We want divers in the water hunting lionfish on their own so they can help control the problem.
JT: You’ve worked with a number of organizations and programs, such as this summer’s Lionfish Invitational in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. What are some future projects you’re excited to work on?
BH: We definitely want to expand the program: working with NOAA to do a harvest in the Flower Gardens. It’s not official yet but we’ve talked about doing it quarterly. Independent of NOAA, our team is working hard on the Texas coast. We’re getting a lot of data and reports from the spearfishing community who are saying the oil rigs in the Gulf are getting a lot of lionfish on them. Historically there’s been three lionfish per rig, and it’s been expensive to only catch 20 to 25 lionfish the whole day. Now they’re saying there’s between 20 and 30 per rig so we’re going to investigate the rigs and nearshore artificial reefs in the Matagora Bay area: to see if they’re coming into the shallows like in Florida.
JT: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me this afternoon, Brady. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
BH: NOAA’s been absolutely amazing. Dr. Michelle Johnson is passionate about the lionfish problem worldwide; she works with our board member Alex Fogg to look at the data. They’re very passionate about getting people involved: with lionfish knowledge and causes. Fling Charters is an amazing organization we work with while we’re out there… doing a great job getting us out there and keeping us safe if the weather gets crazy.
For more details on the TLCU, including information on how to join, visit www.texaslionfish.org.