In the past two years the Marathon and Florida Keys Lionfish Tournament, hosted by Sanctuary Friends Foundation of the Florida Keys, removed more than 1,000 lionfish from Keys waters. That is 1,000 less lionfish devouring the little critters on the local, fragile reefs.
The red and white striped invasive fish exploded in our waters after the first confirmed sighting in 2009. It is a beautiful, but formidable opponent. Tournaments, like the ones Sanctuary Friends and REEF put on, help stop their growing population. And, lately, by adding the delicious snapper-like filets to local restaurant menus, there is a growing demand for the fish as a culinary ingredient.
The big deal about these little guys is, simply put, they are overeaters. Growing to as long as 19 inches, a lionfish will eat anything 2 inches smaller than itself and will eat as many as fish 20 fish in 30 minutes. They start reproducing in their first year, and a female will release a total of two million eggs per year.
The scariest part of this lionfish explosion is the fact that they have zero natural predators in Keys waters. The only thing stopping their destruction is a pole spear and a determined fisherperson.
The best part: they are quite easy to catch. The life of a lionfish is easy — it hangs out on a rock, coral head or wreck, only moving its mouth to catch its unsuspecting dinner. The motionless fish are an easy target for divers wanting dinner.
“With care, a diver will rarely get stuck, but it does happen and it does hurt,” said Rachel Bowman, Sanctuary Friends Board Member, local spearfisherwoman, and lionfish aficionado, said. “A couple times a year, when I let my guard down, one will surprise me.”
Bowman guesstimates she and her lionfish-ing friends have brought in approximtely 7,500 lionfish just in the past year (one person brought up 97 in one day). While lionfish are not aggressive, a slight brush up against a spine will result in a painful sting and immediate swelling.
“It’s like a bee sting. If you aren’t allergic, it’s not dangerous, but the amount of venom can make the pain range from minor discomfort to something close to temporary agony,” she added.
The venom is protein based, and relief comes with the immediate application of heat. Bowman will not be in the upcoming lionfish tournament, which means there is a great chance for even amateurs to reap the benefits of the prizes donated by local dive shops and sponsors like Cressi, Riffe, Papa’s Pilar, Little Palm Island and Fury Watersports.
More good news: Lionfish are delicious! At the lionfish tournament’s awards banquet on Sunday, Oct. 12 starting at 7 p.m., John Mirabella at Castaway Waterfront Restaurant in Marathon will graciously donate his time and space to do a fresh lionfish tasting. As the first Middle Keys restaurant to feature it on a menu, and also featured in National Geographic for its recipes, the dinner alone is worth the tournament entry fee.
Once the spines are cut off, lionfish can be enjoyed just like any other white, mild, flaky fish, even sashimi-style. With humans being the only deterrent, encouraging commercial markets is a crucial step. Order lionfish if you see it on a menu, and encourage divers and snorkelers to spear any fish they see. So, eat ’em up!
About the tourney
The Sanctuary Friends’ Marathon and Florida Keys Lionfish Tournament is over Columbus Day weekend — Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 11-12. Although the captain’s meeting and festivities are in Marathon, tournament rules allow lionfish to be taken from anywhere in the Keys. Tournament registration is $100 for a team of four and includes swag bags given out at the captain’s meeting on Friday, Oct. 10 at Captain Hooks and the lionfish dinner on Sunday, Oct. 12. (Castaway’s is offering a lionfish dinner price that night for $23 for the public.) Prizes will be awarded for first and runner up for most, biggest and smallest. For more information, call 305-481-0685 or email [email protected].