Weeks of razzing continued among dive teams from Florida to as far as Texas on the final day of the 2018 Lionfish World Championship (LWC) held at the world famous Flora Bama Yacht Club, in Perdido Key last weekend.
The suspense was equal to the finale of a reality television show as truckloads of invasive lionfish were weighed, measured and checked for disease by volunteers armed with tongs, wearing puncture-proof gloves and covered in slime and scales in an effort to crown a winner and promote the cause of marine conservation.
In the end, a total 9,619 lionfish rocked the record books compared to 2017’s 6,043, and 1,115 of those were speared one at a time by local charter captain Grayson Shepard, with repeat members of Team Hang On; Nikki Cox of Apalachicola, Meaghan Faletti from St. Petersburg and commercially licensed lion huntress Rachel Bowman of Marathon.
The team worked at 80 to 120 feet depths, from sunset to sundown both days of the shootout, along with 99 other entries. After a late start Friday due to a lightning storm offshore that created four-foot seas, Shepard said that on Saturday, “We dove all our sites, plus those we missed.”
This is the fourth year for the derby as part of year-round incentive programs by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), to control this proliferating species by mitigating its negative impact on native fish like snapper and grouper. Lionfish overcrowd underwater structures, and can decimate juvenile fish feeding on reefs, by 90 percent.
But this year, several divers reported that Gulf populations seem to have hit a sustainable yield.
“Where we took 200-300 last year, we found 20-30,” Shepard said. “Before, our dives were making a dent. Today, it appears, we are mopping up the stragglers.”
Teams saw lots of small triggerfish too, which is a positive sign of recovery.
The largest lionfish weighed in at 17.13 inches and the smallest prize went to a 2.87-inch catch. In addition, three divers in Escambia County caught five tagged fish in FWC’s new Challenge initiative that randomly selects undisclosed reef sites to encourage divers’ exploration.
Alex Fogg, of Mary Esther, led the winning team Florida Man and commended everyone, noting that his team’s results of “2,403 lionfish in two days is an unheralded record.”
Halpern’s Steak and Gary’s Seafood of Orlando bought 5,349.25 pounds of the fish collected at LWC, and the public lined up to taste the delicacy, prepared by chefs from Windcreek Atmore and Flora Bama Ole River Grill doing demonstrations at the Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day Festival that accompanies this overall tournament.
Organizers estimate reaching 15,000 people’s taste buds. The misconception is that lionfish are poisonous, but in fact, the venom only exists in spines that are easily removed with scissors.
The day was capped with a concert by 1990’s country music band, three-time Grammy nominees, Little Texas. The group’s unlikely connection to conservation started when it worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) and Warner Brothers Records rock promoter Gene Dries to add diving to the video for their chart-topping song, “My Love,” (1993), filmed in the Cayman Islands.
“It’s all about those friendships for us,” said drummer, Del Gray. “When Brian [Asher] of Coast Watch Alliance invited us to play, we said, let’s do it, and go diving!”
Asher said of the event overall, “there are things to improve, but it is still the biggest and baddest lionfish removal event in the world.”
Add to the totals the pre-collection of 4,056 fish, by individuals, that began in March and you get 13,675 removed from Gulf of Mexico waters, ranging from Destin to Apalachicola.
Participation was also up and, “with great prizes,” founding organizer and MC Andy Ross, of Pensacola’s Niuhi Dive Charters said, “I’m not surprised.”
“We crushed them,” he said, “but there’s obviously, still a problem out there.”
And how did it go for Hang On?
Compared to last year Bowman exclaimed, “it was equally awesome” and was already on her way home to hunt some more.
For information about the 2018 Lionfish Challenge, which runs through September 3, visit ReefRangers.com.