A record 1,898 invasive lionfish removed thanks to derby

Team Barnacles caught the largest lionfish of the derby, measuring 428 millimeters, or almost 17 inches. Pictured from left are Marilyn Steadman, Michael Ryan, Cassandra Clark, and Doug Hoffman. MADDIE BROWNFIELD/REEF

A total of 22 teams of scuba divers took to the water, collecting a record 1,898 invasive lionfish during the 2023 Florida Keys Lionfish Derby & Festival, held Sept. 8-10.

Hosted by Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), teams fished from sunrise to sunset on Sept. 8 and Sept. 9. The event concluded on Sept. 10 at Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina in Islamorada with an outdoor festival featuring lionfish tastings, cooking and dissection demos, games, interactive booths and live music.

More than $7,000 in cash and prizes were awarded to teams bringing in the most, largest and smallest lionfish. The “Most Lionfish” category included the competitive Apex Predators division and the Reef Defenders division for casual lionfish hunters. Forever Young led the Apex Predators with 648 lionfish, setting a record for the most lionfish harvested by a single derby team. Volitans finished second with 291 lionfish, and Team Trash placed third with 101 lionfish. 

Fourth, fifth and sixth places went to ZooKeeper with 91 lionfish, The Hunters with 80 lionfish, and Will 2 Spear with 71 lionfish. 

In the Reef Defenders division, Men of Science won first place with 156 lionfish. Sea Venom Creations brought in 128 lionfish for second place, Barnacles won third place with 121 lionfish, and Reefreaks placed fourth with 55 lionfish.

Competition was close in the largest and smallest lionfish categories. Barnacles won first place in the “Largest Lionfish” category with a 428-millimeter fish, nearly 17 inches long. Men of Science’s second place fish measured 421 mm, and Forever Young won third place with a 415 mm fish. The smallest fish of the derby was 60 mm (just over 2 inches) and was collected live by ZooKeeper. Will 2 Spear won second place with a 72 mm fish, and Tequila Little Time brought in a 76 mm fish, also live, to win third place. The two live lionfish will be part of an educational exhibit at the REEF Campus. 

Full results from the derby are at

Native to the Indo-Pacific, lionfish are an invasive species in the tropical western Atlantic, and are harming native marine life, including important fisheries like grouper and snapper. REEF lionfish derbies educate the public about invasive species, gather data about lionfish populations and promote a consumer market for lionfish. Regular removal events have been found to significantly reduce lionfish populations on a local scale. 

REEF has been hosting lionfish derbies in the Florida Keys since 2010, and the invasive lionfish harvested during this year’s derby is the most that have ever been caught during a REEF Lionfish Derby in the Florida Keys.

“Lionfish derbies show how a community can come together to support ocean conservation while combating invasive species. It’s so exciting that our teams set a new Florida Keys record of 1,898 invasive lionfish removed. We are very thankful to all of the derby participants, event volunteers, and everyone who attended and helped make the Florida Keys Lionfish Derby & Festival such a great success,” said Alli Candelmo, REEF conservation science manager.

The 2023 Florida Keys Lionfish Derby & Festival was made possible thanks to Ocean Conservancy, Ocean Reef Conservation Association, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, TRIAD, Mesara Foundation, and Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina. Activities occurred within NOAA Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary under permit.

REEF will host the 15th annual Florida Keys Lionfish Derby & Festival on June 20-23, 2024. Fishing will take place June 21 and 22, and the festival will be on Sunday, June 23 at Postcard Inn Beach Resort and Marina. More information is at