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FLORIDA KEYS, Florida -- Divers are to become undersea "anglers" during an innovative event designed to control the population of non-native lionfish in Florida Keys waters. Set for Saturday, Nov. 13, the Lower Keys Lionfish Derby is the final of three derbies organized by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in partnership with the Reef Environmental Education Foundation.
The action is headquartered at Stock Island's Hurricane Hole Marina, 5130 U.S. Highway 1 at mile marker 4.5. Events are to begin at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 12, with a late registration for any teams that did not pre-register, followed by a mandatory 7 p.m. captains meeting.
Because lionfish have venomous spines, briefings on proper catching and cleaning techniques are to be a focus of the evening's activities.
The Indo-Pacific red lionfish, whose Atlantic Ocean presence probably began in the 1980s when people carelessly released the popular aquarium fish, is considered an invasive species with no natural reef predators except man. Its rapidly growing populations in Atlantic and Caribbean waters steal space and food resources from domestic species like grouper and snapper.
On derby day, teams can begin collecting lionfish at sunrise. Lionfish can be taken by spear, hand net, slurp gun or hook and line. Catches are to be turned in to the scoring station between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m.
At a 7 p.m. social, derby participants can taste dishes made with lionfish, whose delicate white meat has been compared to the flavor of hogfish. The tasting also is open to the public.
A 7:30 p.m. banquet rounds out the events. Cash prizes totaling more than $3,000 await the teams that bring in the most lionfish, largest lionfish and smallest. As well as earning prizes, teams are contributing to the preservation of Florida Keys marine habitats and ecosystems.
The entry fee is $100 per team of up to four people registering by Wednesday, Nov. 10. The fee includes one pair of puncture-resistant gloves and two banquet tickets per team. Teams can register Thursday or at the captains meeting for a fee of $120.
Divers can participate in the derbies from their own private vessels 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.