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Diving teams win thousands after removing record-breaking number of highly invasive lionfish: 'We are very thankful'

"Lionfish derbies show how a community can come together to support ocean conservation while combating invasive species."

"Lionfish derbies show how a community can come together to support ocean conservation while combating invasive species."

Photo Credit: Reef Environmental Education Foundation

Scuba divers at the 2023 Florida Keys Lionfish Derby & Festival caught 1,898 lionfish, breaking the previous records for Florida Keys derbies by more than 500.

The derby, held in Islamorada by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), drew 76 participants across 22 teams who fished from sunrise to sunset on Sept. 8 and 9.

According to the Keys Weekly, "regular removal events have been found to significantly reduce lionfish populations on a local scale." 

The invasive species are native to the Indo-Pacific and are an environmental hazard to local marine life in the western Atlantic, like groupers and snappers. Lionfish are voracious predators and can generate tens of thousands of eggs every 2-4 days. 

REEF awarded $7,000 in cash prizes to the teams that caught the most, largest, and smallest lionfish. The first category is split into the Apex Predators Division for more competitive hunters and the Reef Defenders Division for more casual divers, per the weekly

The leaders of the Apex Division got $1,200 for catching 648 lionfish, more than doubling the total catch of second place. The top team from the Reed Defenders Division collected $600 after edging out the silver medalists by just 28. 

Winners of the largest and smallest lionfish competitions each secured $500, as first place for the former brought in a specimen measuring 428 millimeters (about 17 inches), and the victors of the latter had one come in at 60 millimeters (about 2 inches), per the news outlet.

The nonprofit REEF has hosted lionfish derbies in the Keys and Bahamas since 2009, removing 33,188 lionfish near where the waters where the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean converge. In addition to an outdoor festival featuring lionfish cooking and live music, the Keys proceedings educate the public about lionfish while collecting information about its population and encouraging a consumer market.

Florida is rife with invasive species, leaving several companies and organizations to create innovative solutions to preserve local wildlife. One group has set up an annual bounty to capture pythons from the Everglades, while another has used lionfish skin for fashion products like shoes and pocketbooks.

"Lionfish derbies show how a community can come together to support ocean conservation while combating invasive species. It's so exciting that our teams set a new Florida Keys record of 1,898 invasive lionfish removed," REEF conservation science manager Alli Candelmo said, per Keys Weekly.

"We are very thankful to all of the derby participants, event volunteers, and everyone who attended and helped make the Florida Keys Lionfish Derby & Festival such a great success."

If you're interested in learning more about lionfish or want to participate, REEF will host the next Florida Keys Lionfish Derby & Festival from Aug. 15-18 at its campus in Key Largo.

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