KEY LARGO -- Organizers are calling last weekend's first-ever Keys lionfish derby a success.
But the event's secondary goal, of promoting the poisonous, exotic reef fish as commercial table fare, could take a while to make an impact.
Twenty-seven teams, comprised of more than 100 divers, combined to capture 534 lionfish in the waters off Key Largo last Saturday.
"I think this is fantastic," Karrie Carnes, spokeswoman for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, said as the count came in.
Entrants showed up for a chance at a $1,000 prize for most fish caught. But more than that, they came to do their part to contain the lionfish, which feed prodigiously on native, economically valuable reef fish like grouper and snapper.
"I hate lionfish," said participant Carol Jeffrey. "Basically they're ruining our reefs."
The first lionfish was only spotted off the Keys early last year, but since than they have become a common sight for divers, fishermen and commercial lobster trappers along the island chain. Native to the Indian-Pacific oceanic region, including waters around Australia, lionfish face little worry from predators in their newly adopted habitats along the southeast U.S. coast and in the Caribbean. In the meantime, they have shown the ability to overwhelm their new prey.
To control the problem, federal agencies and conservationists are encouraging divers and fishermen to get educated on how to handle the venomous fish safely, and after that, to kill them on sight.
But officials fear that won't be enough. So this summer the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration launched an "Eat Lionfish" campaign in an effort to create an economic incentive to hunt the spiny invader. The campaign rolled into Key Largo at the derby last week. After the weigh-ins, handlers carefully filleted the fish, exposing a white fleshy meat and making sure to remove the poisonous spines.
The fish was prepared both fried and in a ceviche, and from the looks of the empty serving trays was quite well received.
"It was real light meat, so it tasted kind of like hogfish. It was excellent, surprisingly," said participant Jenny Allen.
Still, the derby helped reveal why the time likely has not yet come for a local lionfish market. The striped invaders can grow to between 12 and 15 inches, but out of the 534 fish participants brought in last week, the largest was 10.6 inches. The vast majority were much smaller than that -- in many cases two, three or four inches. The average fish was so small, in fact, that the filleting process became an exercise in patience.
Those sizes will do little to encourage a commercial fishery, says Bill Kelly, executive director of Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association. Commercial divers and lobster trappers are catching more lionfish all the time, he said, but no one's selling and no one's buying.
"They're a nuisance fish," Kelly said. "If it was a marketable commodity, these guys would be bringing it in."
At the Key Largo Fisheries, owner Rick Hill agrees. He says he's yet to buy a lionfish for sale either to restaurants or in the Fisheries' small retail market -- mainly because the ones caught in the Keys are too small to take the time to fillet.
But he also said that as the local lionfish population matures and grows, he might yet offer them next to snapper and grouper in his for-sale cooler.
"It's very possible," Hill said. "But I don't know how soon it will happen."
Proponents of the "Eat Lionfish" campaign say the sooner the better.
A few restaurants, including one in Myrtle Beach and another in Connecticut, have put lionfish on the menu, said Renata Lana, NOAA's media point woman for the campaign. And the first commercial U.S. imports, from the Yucatan to Philadelphia, have begun.
Alecia Adamson, field coordinator for REEF, said she'd like to see Keys vendors start importing lionfish too, especially from The Bahamas, where the fish are larger and the population more established, than it is here.
"We want to create a demand for lionfish, so the best way to create a demand is to get lionfish to seafood distributors in the U.S., whether it be from the Bahamas or Mexico or somewhere else," Adamson said. "We think once seafood vendors get lionfish in their hands, they'll only want more."