It’s believed the venomous Indo-Pacific red lionfish got a foothold in the Atlantic Ocean in the 1980s when people carelessly released the popular aquarium fish. Now established in Florida waters with no natural predators, the rapidly growing population steals space and food resources from domestic species like grouper and snapper as well as eating native juvenile fish.
Since humans put them there, REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation) came up with a way man could help take them back out. The grass-roots, non-profit organization of recreational divers who also conduct fish biodiversity and abundance surveys, set up a series of derbies with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to harvest as many of the invasive fish as possible.
On Saturday, Nov. 5, 50 divers set out from Stock Island, Fla., to compete for cash and prizes in The Lower Keys Lionfish Derby. They collected 312 red lionfish from the Marine Sanctuary, with the top prize of $1,000 going to Bottle Buddies for its haul of 110 lionfish.
The team, consisting of Bob Elkins and Bob Cerkleski of Key West, also caught the derby’s largest lionfish. It measured 13.54 inches and earned the team an additional $500 prize. Team Austin Assassins earned $500 for bringing in the smallest lionfish, measuring 3.15 inches. Teammates Curtis Mueller, Harris Casey, David Price and Matt Magnum all hail from Austin, Texas.
Teams had between dawn-to-dusk and could use a variety of capture methods while either SCUBA diving, free diving, or snorkeling. Since the lionfish, so named due to the large venomous spines that protrude from their bodies like a mane, are dangerous to humans, participants were briefed on safe collection and handling procedures. Also, each team member is required to sign a liability waiver.
REEF has found the derbies are important venues for invasive species outreach and education. Teams and spectators are also informed on why lionfish are detrimental to ocean ecosystems, as well as taste several recipes. The group is also hoping to draw media attention to the Atlantic lionfish invasion and help promote the possible development of a commercial market.