They’re invasive, tasty and worth hunting for. On Sept. 13-15, Reef Environmental Education Foundation presents the final leg of the 2019 Lionfish Derby Series at Postcard Inn Resort and Marina.
The 10th annual Upper Keys Derby and Festival brings divers near and far in a lionfish hunt as they vie for prize money. At the same time, participants help to preserve native reef fish populations during a fun, competitive event to capture and remove as many invasive lionfish as possible.
“We’re all wanting to get rid of lionfish, but in a fun way. That’s why we have this competition,” said Moose Mussey, lead intern for REEF’s Invasive Species Program. “Team captains have to go to a meeting the night before the fishing starts, but generally most of the team members show up because they want to be updated on the lionfish world, and whether they’ve increased or decreased, and new techniques.”
Teams hunt for several awards — most caught, the largest and smallest. There’s also a golden fish raffle award. Mussey said teams get the chance to watch event scorers add up their catches.
“A lot of locals take part in this event, but we get people who travel from South Carolina and Georgia as well,” she said.
For over a decade, REEF has joined the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the dive community to provide hands-on opportunities for “citizen scientists.” These sustainability-focused individuals actively remove the invasive, voracious species introduced to Florida waters during the 1980s, lessening the pressure on existing reef fish ecosystems and providing a healthy new food source for human consumption. Over 40,000 lionfish have been removed during REEF-supported derbies.
At REEF, one of its main programs focuses on invasive species like lionfish. Through REEF’s Volunteer Fish Survey, in which citizen-scientists go out and count fish, Mussey said people started to see invasive species like lionfish showing up.
“They were spotted through our REEF fish surveys and we figured out that we had a real problem,” she said. “Since we’re centered around conservation, we’ve created programming to remove invasive lionfish. We have workshops on lionfish and how to properly handle them. We also do educational programming with schools, doing things such as lionfish dissection and making lionfish jewelry.”
Lionfish derby teams of up to four people can register online, for $120 per team. A mandatory team captains’ will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 13. Its focus is on lionfish ecology, best collecting tools, safe handling and techniques and permits and regulations, so all team members are encouraged to attend.
Derby participants can hunt from sunrise to sunset Saturday, Sept. 14, and sunrise to 1 p.m. Sunday Sept 15, collecting lionfish by netting or spearing while on SCUBA, snorkeling or free diving, following all federal and state fishing regulations.
Participants can dive from a private vessel or with a professional dive operator. Islamorada Dive Center is offering a lionfish hunting charter the weekend of the derby for teams that wish to participate but don’t have a boat. Fishing location is not limited.
All fish are to be turned in at the scoring station by 1 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15, at the Tiki Bar at Postcard Inn Resort and Marina, MM 84, oceanside. Games, crafts, raffle prizes, team scoring, live music and other activities are open to public from noon to 4 p.m. REEF staff will offer lionfish fillet and dissection demonstrations, and local Postcard Inn chefs will provide cooking demonstrations and tastings. The public is encouraged to attend this family-friendly event.
This event is made possible by the generous support of donors including, Postcard Inn Resort and Marina, Whole Foods Market, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, Ocean Reef Conservation Association, Sharkey’s Pub and Galley and Keys Weekly. All activities occur within NOAA Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary under permit.
More information is at REEF.org/2019-lionfish-derby-series or 305-852-0030.
Lionfish are voracious predators, shown to eat native fish and crustaceans in large quantities, including both ecologically and economically important species like snapper. “They always want to eat way more than they should,” said Moose Mussey, lead intern for REEF’s Invasive Species program. They’re not known to have any native predators, and they’re capable of reproducing year-round with unique reproduction mechanisms not commonly found in native fishes. Lionfish can survive in a variety of habitats in fresh and saltwater. They can be found in the mangroves and 80-plus feet deep.