Key Largo Lionfish Derby set for September 14

Pennekamp, Sanctuary and FWC to allow spearing of invasive fish in no-spear zones

By Keri Kenning, REEF Communications Manager

On September 14, recreational divers will flock to Upper Keys reefs to hunt in the Fourth Annual Key Largo Lionfish Derby. Their mission: remove lionfish. Their reward: more than $3,500 in cash prizes for bringing in lionfish and saving native fish populations.

The event, which will be hosted this year by John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, will be the first in which divers will be allowed to remove lionfish by spearing in some of the existing no spearfishing zones of the upper Florida Keys.

Hopes are high for the derby, organized by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF). Last year, divers removed 461 lionfish in the single day event to help halt the invasive species.

Invasive lionfish are voracious predators from the Indo-Pacific that threaten Florida’s marine ecosystems by devouring more than seventy species of native fish and invertebrates. Defended from predators by 18 venomous spines, lionfish rule the reefs and reproduce as often as every four days, year round. Though lionfish may seem unstoppable, divers can significantly reduce local populations and local control is proving to be highly successful.

Recognizing the need to facilitate more efficient removals, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have issued single day permits to allow spearing in Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary Existing Management Areas, and state waters of the of the upper Keys. This single-day derby permit does not allow spearfishing in the Sanctuary Preservation Areas and Research-Only Areas. Spearfishing gear will be restricted to the use of pole spears with paralyzer tips and teams will be required to fly special lionfish pennants during the derby.

“The Sanctuary is committed to controlling the establishment of lionfish on our reefs through the use of education, adaptive management and our permitting program,” said Sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton.

Complete rules and restrictions are available online at These rules will be covered during the Captains’ Meeting on Friday, September 13 at 6:30 p.m. at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Captains are required to attend, and all other participants are strongly encouraged to attend.

Teams will be competing for awards for the most lionfish caught, largest lionfish caught, and smallest lionfish caught. Prizes will be awarded to 10th place for most lionfish caught this year. All are invited to compete, and spectators are encouraged to attend the scoring and taste free lionfish samples.

Teams should preregister online or register in person at the Captains’ Meeting beginning at 5:30 p.m. Derby competition begins at sunrise on September 14, with catch due at the scoring station at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park by 5:00 p.m. Early registration and further information are at

Derby sponsors include John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Divers Direct, Zookeeper, and the Ocean Reef Conservation Association. This event is being conducted under the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary permit #FKNMS-2013-103.