KEY LARGO — More than 100 divers collected 534 Indo-Pacific red lionfish during the first concerted effort to reduce the population of the invasive species in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
The first of three Keys-based lionfish derbies Saturday attracted 27 teams, which competed for cash and prizes to collect the most, largest and smallest lionfish. The winning group captured 111 lionfish.
Lad Akins, of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, says unsuspecting pet owners are releasing the nonnative fish into the Atlantic, where they have no natural predators.
They’re showing up in the Gulf, too. Kevin Lausman caught one on Aug. 5 while scuba diving off Anna Maria Island.
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Lionfish’s growing pop- ulations off the southeast United States, the Bahamas and the Caribbean are impacting indigenous fish, because they eat important juvenile reef species such as grouper and snapper.
“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,” Akins, REEF director of operations, says on the group’s website.
“Providing training and incentives for the public to remove lionfish is one way to control populations and minimize those impacts.”
Following detailed briefings on lionfish collecting and handling, divers in the derbies are allowed to collect fish using hand nets or spearfishing gear in areas of the sanctuary where fishing and spearfishing is allowed.
The $100 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 feature a lionfish tasting for derby participants and guests.
“Eating lionfish is a conservation activity,” said Sean Morton, acting sanctuary 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 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.
The next derby is set for Oct. 16 at the Keys Fisheries Market and Marina in Marathon. For more information or to register, visit www.reef.org/lionfish/derbies.