FLORIDA KEYS, Florida -- Putting an innovative twist on fishing tournaments, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, in partnership with Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), have created three fishing derbies for the dive community to capture and remove non-native lionfish from Keys waters.
Participants are to learn how to collect the Indo-Pacific red lionfish, whose growing populations in Atlantic and Caribbean waters are impacting indigenous fish, as well as how to clean and fillet this delicious fish whose delicate white meat is likened to hogfish.
Derby divers who remove lionfish from sanctuary waters are to be eligible for up to $10,000 in cash and prizes - more than $3,000 per derby - in addition to helping preserve Keys habitats and eco-systems.
Saturday derby dates are Sept. 11 at Coconuts Restaurant, located at mile marker 100 in Key Largo, Oct. 16 at Keys Fisheries Restaurant & Market in Marathon and Nov. 13 at the Hurricane Hole Marina in Key West.
"Events like derbies are great way to involve divers to remove lionfish and help minimize their impact," said Lad Akins of REEF. "As a bonus, lionfish also happen to be a little known, but genuine food delicacy."
It is believed the popular aquarium fish was first released in southern Atlantic waters during the 1980s and is considered an invasive species with no natural reef predators, except man. Lionfish prey on invertebrates and juvenile fish such as grouper, snapper and other species that have high recreational, commercial and ecological importance to coral reefs.
According to experts, it is estimated that approximately 27 percent of mature lionfish need be removed monthly for one year in order in order to halt increases in population.
Lionfish have venomous spines, so instructions on proper catching and cleaning techniques are to be a focal point at mandatory captains' meetings set for Friday evenings prior to each event.
A banquet awarding divers for the most, biggest and smallest lionfish is to follow, as well as an open-to-the-public tasting to sample lionfish ceviche and fried fish bites.
Registration costs $100 for up to four people and includes one pair of puncture-resistant gloves and two banquet tickets per team.
Divers can participate in a derby from their own private vessel or join a local dive operator's charter. For more information and team registration, visit www.reef.org/lionfish/derbies or call 305-852-0030.
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