It is time for lionfish to take the spotlight with this year’s 2018 Winter Lionfish Derby, being held on March 31st in Key Largo, Florida. This derby is put on by Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) to promote lionfish awareness, obtain research samples, and most importantly remove as many lionfish as possible. Both locals and visitors of the Florida Keys are encouraged to join this event and the following article will serve you as a guide to a successful day on the water!
Originally from Indonesia, lionfish have now found their home in the Florida Keys. Here, these fish are invasive and are not known to have any natural predators. Lionfish are a predatory species that eat juvenile reef fish and can be found in large numbers on coral heads, reef ledges, and other types of structure. When juvenile fish school together we call them bait balls, which can be small or large. If you find these bait balls while diving, you will find lionfish in that same area. The most productive coral heads will be in depths ranging from 65-100+ feet of water, although you can find them in shallow areas as well. If you’re having trouble finding good coral heads, try looking on the deeper reef ledges. The ledges in the upper Keys generally run southeast to northwest, the best ledges for lionfish will be in 75-90 feet of water. Remember you are not allowed to take these fish by spear in sanctuary preservation zones (SPA’s), only nets can be used in these areas.
When you find a spot that you think will be holding lionfish, be sure to hit the water with the proper equipment. These fish are not only invasive, but also venomous. It is very important to handle them properly and safely contain them while diving. I recommend using a Lionfish Zookeeper. They are easy to carry while diving and come in an array of sizes. During the day Lionfish are fairly inactive and will not move about the reef like other fish. They are relatively easy to spear and because of this, I recommend using a barbed tipped pole spear instead of a spear gun. The pole spear also allows for safe and easy transfer of the fish to the Zookeeper containment unit. Remember that even a small lionfish will have a negative impact on the surrounding reef, do your best not to leave any behind.
The removal of invasive lionfish is vital to the health of the Florida Keys reef tract. Eradication efforts are ongoing and the 2018 Winter Lionfish Derby is put on to build the public’s awareness of this issue. Remember that these fish are venomous and not poisonous, their meat is highly prized and safe to eat. If you are unable to hunt these fish yourself, you can still support their removal efforts by ordering lionfish at a local restaurant. Nearly all dive centers support lionfish hunting on their regular charters. Be sure to ask your captain or guide next time you head out diving.
Dive Safe and Happy Hunting!
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