REEF and Florida Keys Sanctuary Kick Off Lionfish Derbies This Weekend

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The largest lionfish captured during a day-long derby in the Bahamas.
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Lionfish are being found more frequently in the Florida Keys. This one was reported in August from Conch Reef. Photo by Neal Rakov.

Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) with help from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) will host an inaugural series of lionfish derbies in the Keys starting this weekend. Divers who remove lionfish from Sanctuary waters will be eligible for more than $10,000 in cash and prizes. Awards will go to the top 3 teams in the following categories: most lionfish, biggest lionfish, and smallest lionfish.

REEF and Sanctuary managers have been working with the Florida Keys dive community to remove invasive lionfish since early 2009. Scientists are concerned about the rapid population growth of lionfish in Keys waters and their lack of a natural predator in the Atlantic. Lionfish are known to feed on ecologically and commercially important fish species — including snapper, grouper and shrimp — and can disrupt the balance of the marine ecosystem.

“Current research is beginning to show that, if left unchecked, the impacts of lionfish could be devastating to our native marine life and coral reefs,” said Lad Akins, REEF Director of Operations. “Providing training and incentives for the public to remove lionfish is one way to control populations and minimize those impacts.” Following detailed briefings by REEF staff on lionfish collecting and handling, divers will be allowed to collect fish on the day of the tournament using hand nets or spearfishing gear in areas of the sanctuary where fishing and spearfishing is allowed. A new rule was just passed July 27th, 2010 that enables divers to collect lionfish with hand nets throughout Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo.

The $100 derby registration fee for a four-person team of divers or snorkelers provides participants with a pair of puncture resistant gloves and banquet tickets. Event banquets will feature a lionfish tasting for derby participants and guests. These derbies are not only a great way to reduce local lionfish populations, but also serve to educate and engage the public in lionfish control efforts.

“Eating lionfish is a conservation activity,” said Sean Morton, acting FKNMS Superintendent. “We are its only known predator in the Atlantic and through dedicated diver-based removal efforts, and consumption of lionfish as a food source, we can control its establishment.” NOAA has even developed an “Eat Lionfish” campaign that brings together fishing communities, wholesalers, and chefs in an effort to broaden U.S. consumers’ awareness of this delicious invader.

For more information on REEF's lionfish research program, the derbies, and to register online, visit www.reef.org/lionfish. Dates and locations for the derbies are: September 11 – Coconuts Restaurant, Key Largo • October 16 – Keys Fisheries Market and Marina, Marathon • November 13 — Hurricane Hole Marina, Key West. Florida Keys lionfish derbies are sponsored in part by: Ocean Reef Conservation Association, Divers Direct, Spree Expeditions, Inc., Dive Key West, Inc., and Scuba-Do Dive Company. To become an event sponsor, please contact Alecia@reef.org. REEF-coordinated lionfish derbies in the Bahamas have removed almost 2,500 lionfish since 2009. Thousands more fish have been captured in more than 30 REEF-organized lionfish collection trips across the Caribbean. Because of REEF’s vast experience with lionfish control programs, the Florida Keys Lionfish Derbies are destined for success!

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub