They braved searing heat, extreme depths and painful injuries in their pursuit for lionfish glory. Last weekend Team Raw Deal out of the Castaway crushed the competition by killing 131 out of 163 of the invasive species in the Sanctuary Friends Foundation annual lionfish tournament.
Captained by Castaway proprietor John Mirabella, Raw Deal cleaned out three wrecks and a couple hot reef spots over two days, but not before a nasty injury almost cost the team their chance at immortality.
While climbing aboard Mirabella’s 31-foot Stamas, legendary PR guru Julie Botteri bumped up against the razor sharp prop – causing a laceration that required 17 staples to close.
“She’s a trooper,” Mirabella said a couple days after the tournament. “She did even blink an eye and returned the second day to drive the boat.”
The rest of Team Raw Deal each suffered lionfish stings in their haste to bag as many as the poisonous species as possible.
“I cried like a baby and my hand is still blown up like a balloon,” Mirabella said. “It feels like it’s being crushed in a vise.”
While working a wreck in about 140 feet of water to the west of Marathon, he thought he had brushed his hand against a jagged piece of metal, but when he saw his teammate, Chase Grimes, pull a lionfish from the other side of the wreck he knew more pain would be coming.
Mirabella first put lionfish on his menu three years ago and has since developed a national reputation for both his harvesting expertise and culinary prowess.
National Geographic features his Wreck Diver Lionfish and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission has begun using him as an information source.
“We have eradicated spots of lionfish and then when we go back the next month there will be 30 to 40 lionfish in that same spot,” Mirabella said.
“He is getting a lot of traction about being a resourceful spearfisherman since he is also providing fresh fish for his customers, said Botteri who has also penned stories about Mirabella’s exploits as web editor for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council. “A lot of places can offer it, but the trick is having enough,” and according to Botteri their first haul of 70 fish only produced about 12 pounds of filets.
“It’s a high labor product,” she said. “But its worthwhile to know that you are also cleaning the reef of lionfish.”
According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the lionfish was first spotted in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in 2009.
The lionfish has no known natural predators in the Atlantic, an appetite for native fish and crustaceans, and the ability to spawn year-round. Because of this, ecologists are concerned that lionfish could have an impact on native reef fish populations and the natural balance of the reef ecosystem.
For more information on the lionfish and upcoming derbies, please visit reef.org. To learn more about the Sanctuary Friends Foundation of the Keys visit sanctuaryfriends.org.