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REEF Derby Makes Solid Impact on Lionfish in the Keys
Fourteen teams that braved last Saturday’s bumpy sea conditions to compete in Reef Environmental Education Foundation’s fifth winter lionfish derby in the Upper Keys managed to whack an impressive 420 of the candy-striped predators.
Eric Billips, owner of Islamorada Dive Center, and teammates Jack Whittle and Jeff Leonia speared 181 to take the top prize of $480. Billips said they hunted some coral ledges and artificial structure in depths of 70 to 135 feet.
“I’ve been hunting these things for ten years. We’re getting more in deeper depths on structure and what we’re seeing is bigger sizes,” Billips said. “I definitely think we are controlling the population, but they’ll never be eradicated.”
The largest lionfish weighed at Sharkey’s Pub & Galley Grill in Key Largo was nearly 18 inches by Team Ocean Divers. The smallest was 3 1/2 inches brought in by Team Lion Reapers.
Scores of onlookers attended the weigh-in festivities on Sharkey’s dock where the catch was counted, measured, sampled by scientists, and turned into tasty ceviche and fried nuggets for everyone to taste.
“REEF is letting me take the stomachs to analyze the contents to look at their feeding ecology,” said University of Pennsylvania student Courtney Lang. She added that, so far, scientists have documented 100 species that lionfish eat.
The invaders from the Indo Pacific with colorful fins and venomous spines were first discovered in South Florida in the 1980s– believed to be pets released from aquariums. They are prolific spawners that can live in depths from just a few inches to 1,000 feet and tolerate a range of salinity. They will eat just about anything, and have been blamed for decimating native fish populations on some local reef systems in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
Kathy Ilcken stood at a table at Saturday’s weigh-in to collect lionfish pectoral and tail fins for making jewelry. She displayed eye-catching necklaces and earrings that were snapped up by some onlookers. (Check out a how-to webinar at reef.org).
Lionfish hunting season is year-round in Florida, with almost no restrictions. High season for local derbies around the state is May through September. For a list of events and general lionfish information, visit the MyFWC web site.