Thirteen teams of underwater assassins braved Saturday’s thunderstorms to kill 265 exotic predators in the Teeples Memorial Lionfish Derby in Fort Lauderdale. Afterward, the divers celebrated by chowing down on their bounty dockside at 15th Street Fisheries restaurant.
“You pulled a lot of lionfish out of the water [Saturday] and that matters,” Lad Akins, director of special projects for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, told the crowd at the awards ceremony. “Congratulations!”
The four-man Zen Killers Team won $1,500 for killing the most lionfish — 58 — and the largest — a 15 3/4-inch specimen. Team member Patrick Peacock, a master dive instructor in Fort Lauderdale, said they used pole spears at two reefs off Aventura and Sunrise in depths of 65 to 80 feet.
“You’re looking for ledges because lionfish tuck up underneath,” Peacock explained. “I thought we’d get more. I’m underwater four to five days a week. I kill ’em all the time. It’s just like lobstering or anything else — luck of the draw.”
REEF, a Key Largo-based nonprofit group, hosts lionfish derbies in South Florida and the Bahamas to encourage scuba divers and snorkelers to harvest and eat the hardy invaders from the Indo-Pacific. Lionfish will gobble just about any fish they can fit in their jaws and are blamed for decimating tropical fish populations on some reefs by as much as80 percent. Although scientists believe they were introduced here in the 1980s, they’ve only become a big problem in the past five years or so.
Akins said divers have done a good job of knocking down their numbers at popular reefs and wrecks.
“We know from tagging studies that lionfish don’t move a lot,” Akins said. “If you keep an area clean, you can really minimize lionfish impacts. The great thing about the derbies is that people are going outside the normal dive areas, so it keeps the numbers down in areas people normally wouldn’t be going.”
While the lionfish hunters waited for tournament results to be tabulated Saturday, several of them watched as 14-year-old Laura Stieghorst, an incoming freshman at Coral Gables Senior High, dissected the day’s harvest.
Laura said she won second place at a state science fair for her project on the animals’ stomach contents.
“I found pieces of fish, eyes, spinal cords. Sometimes you get the whole fish,” she said. “That was really exciting for me. It’s inspired me to want to become a biologist.”
Laura said she also plans to become a certified scuba diver so that she can catch her own lionfish and study them.
Divers will have more opportunities to spear lionfish for fun and profit; REEF is holding derbies in August in Palm Beach and in September in Key Largo. For more information, visit reef.org.