Florida Keys News
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Divers in Keys lionfish derbies harvest 1,518 spiny reef invaders

They dove, they speared, they netted.

In the end, the lionfish hunters in the Florida Keys removed 1,518 of the invasive fish species from the local waters during the second annual derby series that wrapped up over the weekend in Key West.

A year ago, the derby teams, competing in the event launched by conservationists to raise awareness to the alluring, yet environmentally predatory lionfish, removed a total of 664.

"The numbers are sobering because they continue to increase," said Karrie Carnes, spokeswoman for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, who has speared her share of lionfish. "That's the nature of an invasion."

With their showy fins that flourish like a lion's mane -- fins that can deliver painful venomous stings -- and red and white stripes, lionfish are prized in aquariums and cursed in the ocean waters.

The festive derby, which ended with a lionfish fry, wore a deadly serious backdrop as the fin fish -- with its frequently spawns, no known predators and huge appetite for native fish -- has in just a few years become a permanent part of the Keys.

"Lionfish are eating just about anything they can: snappers, groupers," said Carnes. "Eradication is impossible. Lionfish are part of the Florida Keys story."

Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, University of Florida and Salisbury University collected hundreds of tissue samples as part of ongoing research of the lionfish invasion's toll on the coral ecosystem.

Thinning the lionfish herd requires several strategies, with the annual Keys derby -- which hits the Upper, Middle and Lower Keys -- being only a start.

Fifteen dive teams on Saturday competed for $3,350 in cash prizes and bragging rights. Team Bottle Buddies of Key West hauled in 110 lionfish in one day, and plucked the largest one at 13 1/2 inches.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has granted permits to 300 divers in the Keys to net lionfish from the 18 no-take preservation areas across the 2,900 nautical square miles of the sanctuary.

Consumption is the best control strategy, said Carnes, and NOAA's "Eat Lionfish" campaign has joined together restaurants, wholesalers and anglers to promote the fish as an entree.

The Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) has declared the spiny lionfish meat -- without the uncooked spines that contain venom -- "the Caribbean's new delicacy," and published cookbooks.

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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