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Long Islander catches record-setting lionfish off Florida Keys

Timothy Blasko with record-setting lionfish. / Tony Young

A Long Island fisherman visiting South Florida caught a record-setting lionfish off the coast of the Florida Keys.

Timothy Blasko, 37, of Cutchogue, was diving and spearfishing Aug. 6 off the Tennessee Reef in the Atlantic Ocean when he spotted a lionfish. Florida officials have encouraged visitors and fisherman to capture the invasive species, so Blasko said he went for it with his spear....

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A Long Island fisherman visiting South Florida caught  a record-setting lionfish off the coast of the Florida Keys.

Timothy Blasko, 37, of Cutchogue, was diving and spearfishing Aug. 6 off the Tennessee Reef in the Atlantic Ocean when he spotted a lionfish. Florida officials have encouraged visitors and fisherman to capture the invasive species, so Blasko said he went for it with his spear.

“I knew he was big because he was facing me but it wasn't until he turned sideways that I realized he was the Godzilla of lionfish,” Blasko, a correction officer, said in a Facebook message.

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“I see a ton of lionfish on my Florida dives,” Blasko said. “Most measure about 10 inches long."

Blasko said he was looking for grouper and snapper, but lionfish had become common in the area. About five or six times a year, he and his friend Tony Young, 28, of Islamorada, Florida,  dive in the Keys and they always pick up a few lionfish. 

Lionfish are considered an invasive species in Atlantic waters, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The fish, which have distinctive bands of white and maroon or brown and painful stinging spines, is originally from the South Pacific and Indian oceans. The species has rapidly spread without any known predators in the Atlantic, and Florida wildlife officials said lionfish posed a threat to native fish.

Wildlife officials in Florida have encouraged lionfish removal, even holding a campaign called “The Lionfish Challenge,” which asks visitors and divers to help tag and catch the fish for prizes. Since lionfish also taste good, anglers have been encouraged by the Florida State Wildlife Conservation Commission to keep all they can catch.

Young, said he'd seen a large lionfish in that area of the reef months before on a fishing trip, but the group he was with wasn't able to capture it at the time. He started calling the area "getaway ledge" and visiting regularly to see if he could find it again. 

"You just don’t forget it when you see a lionfish that is that much larger on the reef," he said.

When Blasko came for his latest visit, Young suggested they try the area again. This time, the fish reappeared and Blasko was able to successfully spear it.

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Blasko said it was so large he had trouble fitting it into a special device called a Zookeeper, a clear plastic case for storing fish.

"We all thought the same thing, that this could be a new record," Blasko said. "We have some really nice lionfish in the cooler too and they looked like babies in comparison."

Blasko and Young took the fish to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute’s office in Marathon, Florida, for official measurements. Researchers there confirmed the fish was about 18 inches long and weighed 3.10 pounds, a state record for heaviest lionfish speared in Atlantic waters. Blasko said he was required to freeze and keep the fish for 60 days and then he planned to donate it to a research organization.

Officials also maintain state records for longest lionfish, lionfish caught in the Gulf of Mexico, lionfish caught with hook and line and a youth lionfish division. The heaviest lionfish caught in the gulf weighed 3.38 pounds and was speared on April 6.

“Congratulations, Timothy for removing this large invader!” officials wrote in a Facebook post on their “Reef Rangers” page.

With Tom Schlicter