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Turning the tables on the voraciuos lionfish, published 11/26/10

MOUNT PLEASANT -- Vic Depuis is out to kill.

His prey fights back with a numbing venom that feels like a cross between sandpaper and mace. Any one of dozens of slender spines along its body can prick. The spines are so prickly that, if you run a finger down the prey's back, the spines stick straight up and drip the venom. Depuis keeps his fingers in Kevlar gloves.

Yep, his prey is lionfish -- that invasive menace destroying native fish populations on the offshore reefs. Depuis, with fellow diver Nate Tarpein, created "Eat the Lionfish," a Charleston-based Facebook group dedicated to "the mass slaughter and cooking of lionfish on the east coast."

He's the guy who wants you to eat them. A lot of them.

Depuis has designed a spike-proof collection bag and is re-rigging spearfishing gear so that commercial dive teams can go after large catches of lionfish just as soon as enough retailers get interested in buying them. He has a few in the freezer right now; he prefers them fried. Lionfish does taste like grouper, but it has a texture like sea bass, he says. He thinks it tastes like triggerfish.

He has organized an annual, yearlong lionfish tournament that in 2009 brought in 1,000 carcasses. He's been contacted by staff at the Dry Tortguas National Park for hunting tips and stays in informal contact with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's lionfish effort.

"He's doing his own thing," said Renata Lana, NOAA communications specialist. "It's always good to kill lionfish."

In a weird kind of way, the destructive fish taking over the reefs is almost a godsend for Depuis, co-owner of Lowcountry Scuba, and divers like him. It showed up offshore just as federal regulators clamped down on the catch of other bottom fish such as the prized grouper. Lionfish is the speargun game with no bag limit -- just pull back the rubber sling and let 'er rip.

In other words, it's good for the dive business.

"It's not managed at all, which is really cool for us," Depuis said. NOAA, in fact, wants as many of the fish caught as possible. The lionfish eats seven times as much per pound as the sea bass, and what it eats are young game fish like the bass. It can strip a reef so clean that some rocks where Depuis dives once held "gigantic fish" like grouper, and now are empty except for lionfish.

He sometimes finds 30 lionfish on a rock no more than 20 feet in diameter. The species is so prolific that a lionfish carcass can still deposit 60,000-80,000 roe, he said.

Depuis, 23, is a College of Charleston graduate by way of the Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota, Fla. He was working on sea turtle restoration when he made his first dive off South Carolina, saw the fish-swarmed habitat and has barely come up for air since. He took over the longtime Mount Pleasant dive shop back behind the car repair shop, where visitors are greeted by Sammy, his black Labrador retriever, and Mako, a husky-shepherd mix.

Commercial harvest might be the only way to control the lionfish population, Depuis said, and he thinks they are about to filet their way onto a plate near you. It used to be three divers in every 10 were looking for spearguns to go after grouper. Now, whole groups are asking about how to spear lionfish.

"Once they eat them," he said, "they're going to keep doing it."

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744.