Divers will be hitting the waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary this weekend on a mission: net thousands of dollars in cash and prizes while protecting the environment.

More than $3,000 in cash and prizes will be awarded to the divers who bring in the most lionfish, largest lionfish, and smallest lionfish during the one-day tournament on Saturday, September 11, in Key Largo, FL.

Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) and the Sanctuary have been working with the Florida Keys dive community to remove invasive lionfish since early 2009, but this is the first time a bounty has been set on the marine invader in the Keys.

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 commercially and ecologically important fish species — including snapper, grouper, shrimp—, and can disrupt the balance of the marine ecosystem.

On the day of the tournament, divers will be allowed to collect lionfish using hand nets or spearfishing gear in areas of the sanctuary where fishing and spearfishing is allowed. Lionfish collection begins at sunrise on Saturday and all fish must be checked in for scoring at Coconuts Restaurant in Key Largo by 6:30pm. Lionfish tastings begin at 6pm and the awards banquet starts at 7 pm.

Teams of four may register online at www.reef.org. The $100 registration fee provides each team with a pair of puncture resistant gloves — important protection from lionfish spines — and two tickets to the derby banquet.

The Key Largo lionfish derby is the first of three during this tournament series. Dates and locations for the derbies are:

•      Sept. 11 — Coconuts Restaurant, Key Largo
•      Oct. 16 — Keys Fisheries Market and Marina, Marathon
•      Nov. 13 — Hurricane Hole Marina, Key West

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.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects 2,900 square nautical miles of critical marine habitat, including coral reef, hard bottom, sea grass meadows, mangrove communities, and sand flats. NOAA and the state of Florida manage the sanctuary.

NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth’s environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. Visit us at www.noaa.gov or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/usnoaagov.


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