Limiting lionfish

KEY LARGO, Fla. -- More than 100 divers submerged Saturday to collect 534 Indo-Pacific red lionfish during the initial concerted effort to reduce the population of the invasive species in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The first of three planned Keys-based lionfish derbies attracted 27 teams that competed for cash and prizes to collect the most, largest and smallest lionfish.

The group Rare Talent won the top $1,000 prize by capturing 111 lionfish. The team consisted of Alan Wilson and Brett Roach of Islamorada, Fla., Scott Austin of Tavernier, Fla., and Martha Austin of Washington, D.C.

The largest lionfish caught was 10.6 inches by Lion Killers consisting of Randy and Karen Hendrick of Islamorada and Ronnie Freeman of Marathon, Fla. The smallest, a mere 1.9 inches long, was captured by Full Circle, with Carlos and Allison Estape of Islamorada, and Eric Billips and Pam Bradley, both of Key Largo. Each team earned $500.

Released alive into Atlantic waters by unsuspecting aquarists, lionfish have no known predators, except man, said Lad Akins of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, who is coordinating the derbies in partnership with sanctuary officials.

Growing populations of lionfish off the southeast U.S., Bahamas and the Caribbean are impacting indigenous fish, because they eat juvenile species such as grouper and snapper, as well as invertebrates that have high recreational, commercial and ecological importance to coral reefs.

"That's 534 lionfish that aren't out there eating reef fish," Akins said. "Beyond going out there and removing a lot of lionfish at once, we hope to increase awareness and have divers do this on an ongoing basis."

Lionfish have venomous spines, but when properly cleaned, yield a white meat that is considered a delicacy. Saturday night's derby awards banquet at Coconuts Restaurant featured lionfish on the menu.

Akins and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hope the popularity of lionfish on dining room tables will increase and a commercial market will develop.

"I think the market is going to be supplied by areas more invaded than the Florida Keys," Akins said. "The idea is that the fish doesn't go to waste."

NOAA recently launched an "Eat Lionfish" campaign.

According to Akins, it is estimated that approximately 27 percent of mature lionfish need be removed monthly for one year in order to halt increases in population.

The second Keys Lionfish Derby is planned for Saturday, Oct. 16, at Keys Fisheries Restaurant in Marathon and the third, Saturday, Nov. 13, at the Hurricane Hole Restaurant & Marina in Key West.

Instructions on safe catching and cleaning techniques are to be a focal point at mandatory captains meetings scheduled for Friday evenings prior to each event.

More details on upcoming derbies and capturing lionfish are at ww.reef.org/lionfish/derbies.