speared lionfish

Lionfish Derby Newbie

posted by Sarah Curry on 19 September 2013

Killing a beautiful fish in the name of conservation? That’s what the Lionfish Derby is all about. And this past Saturday I got to tag along to see what the event is like firsthand.

First thing in the morning, you race out to sea, which is pretty exciting all on its own. I mean, I’ve never been in a boat race before. The rest of the day is essentially rushing from site to site and sticking your head under corals or into holes in corals, looking for the easily recognizable, but somehow very sneaky, lionfish. We went to about 10 patch reefs, and saw sharks, eels, rays and tons of fish along the way.

diving for lionfish









But the event really begins the night before at the Captain’s meeting. This year the event was held at John Pennekamp State Park and it was packed! All team captains are required to attend, but all team members are encouraged to show up. Why?

Why the event exists 

This invasive species (their home is the Indo-Pacific) has a voracious appetite and reproduces fairly quickly. One fish can spawn more than 2 million eggs a year!  And with no natural predators in the area, it roams the reef and corners fish with it’s mighty display. Then it swallows fish whole with it’s humungous mouth, often the juveniles of important reef species. Chewing? Nobody has time for that! This can be pretty detrimental to the reef, which is why these tournaments came to be:  part of a management plan to help maintain balance in the coral reef ecosystem.

History of the Derbies

The first lionfish derby in the Upper Keys was in 2010, and it netted 534 fish. In 2011, 675 fish were brought in, and in 2012, 461 fish. This year the final tally was 707 fish. The team with the most fish, “Her Lion Eyes”, brought in 192 lionfish! They told me they visited between 50-60 sites that day. By comparison, we went to about 10 sites, but brought in five fish.


first catch of the day

pile of lionfish









To learn where to look for the fish

Lad Akins, Director of Special Operations at REEF, advised the crowd, “You can find lionfish anywhere from the mangroves to the drop-off, you just have to look.” He explained that nets are effective in shallow water sites for capturing the fish, but our team only used pole spears. And actually, the cool thing about this particular derby was that spearing was allowed inside John Pennekamp State Park for the first time since the 60s. An exception was granted only for the day, and only for the removal of lionfish. If any other marine life was found on your boat the day of the derby, you were disqualified.

What to do if Stung

The pain builds, apparently.

While you may feel okay immediately after you’ve been stung…don’t ignore it! But don’t panic, either. “Immerse the sting in non-scalding hot water. Plan ahead and bring a thermos of hot water on the boat,” Akins advised. The captain of the boat I was on said he had been stung once before and it was some of the worst pain in his life, on par with his once passing a kidney stone.

Once we’d looked under every nook we could for the day, we raced back to bring in our catch; all fish must be brought in by 5 pm. Volunteers weighed and measured the fish, and prizes are awarded to the team with the most fish, the largest fish, and the smallest fish.  Several universities were also there collecting samples from the bounty. And some lionfish were dissected onsite to show onloookers the massive amount of food they’d consumed.

Trained specialists filet the fish and fresh lionfish ceviche was served. Yes, you can eat it and it was amazing!! If you ever have the opportunity to try lionfish, I highly recommend it. Here are some recipes in case you find one on the reef yourself!

A big thanks to Roger, Tricia, Danny, and Michelle for letting me tag along on the boat that day. You guys rock.

smallest lionfsih of the day

lionfish ceviche

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