Florida Keys

These women caught more than 900 lionfish in 24 hours off the Florida coast

Nikkie Cox (left), Meaghan Faletti and Rachel Bowman (right) made up Team Hang On, which took first place in the third annual Lionfish World Championship in Pensacola this weekend.
Nikkie Cox (left), Meaghan Faletti and Rachel Bowman (right) made up Team Hang On, which took first place in the third annual Lionfish World Championship in Pensacola this weekend. Contributed

Marathon lionfish hunter Rachel Bowman has bragging rights for being honored as one of the state’s top harvesters.

She earned more bragging rights over the weekend in Pensacola, taking first place on a team with two other women in the third annual Lionfish World Championship.

The tournament was part of Pensacola’s lionfish Removal and Awareness Day Festival. The invasive species has no natural predators, largely due to their array of venomous spines. Lionfish eat voraciously and breed constantly, threatening local fish species and the reef at large.

Team Hang On, composed of Bowman, St. Petersburg resident Meaghan Faletti and Nikkie Cox of Apalachicola caught 926 lionfish while diving 37 miles off Pensacola, led by Capt. Grayson Shepard, also of Apalachicola.

Together, the team hauled in nearly a quarter of the total 3,868 lionfish caught from 5:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Amanda Nalley. There were five other teams in the tournament and it was hosted by the Gulf Coast Lionfish Coalition with prizes for largest lionfish and most caught.

Bowman, Faletti and Cox each used a Zookeeper, a capturing device which can net up to 80 pounds of fish in one dive.

Bowman4
Marathon resident Rachel Bowman poses with three of the more than 900 lionfish caught by her team. Contributed

“On two separate dives, my Zookeeper was completely full,” Bowman told the Keynoter, adding the group dove in “miserable” 2- to 4-foot seas at a depth of 140 feet. “It was so shallow. I’m used to being in thousands of feet of water,” she said.

There was a cash prize for catching the most lionfish, but Bowman was more excited about the first-place title and the right to brag “for an entire year.”

Faletti is a former biological scientist with the FWC and Cox is an environmental specialist with the state Department of Environmental Protection. Bowman makes her living selling her lionfish catches to restaurants and others. She said some of the tournament fish were sold to Whole Foods, to which she has been selling since May 2016.

From now through September, there are numerous derbies throughout Florida where divers and snorkelers compete to bring in the most lionfish for cash prizes. The next one in the Keys is June 9 to 11 in Key West. To find out more, go to www.myfwc.com/fishing.

An invasive species of fish called the lionfish could change the balance of sea life in the waters of the Florida Keys.

Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219

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