One invasive lionfish is too many in Florida waters, and the Keys has plenty of the voracious predators lurking around and gobbling up native species.
But the Panhandle in the northwest corner of the state has the highest concentration of them, according to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture, so it makes sense that what’s billed as the largest lionfish tournament in history was held there over the weekend.
State and federal wildlife officials want them gone because they eat so many native fish that they have reduced native populations on some reefs by up to 90 percent since they began showing up in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic in the 1980s. The good news is, they aren’t that hard to catch with a pole spear or a hand net. Even better — they are pretty tasty.
During the Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament held May 16-19, 189 divers removed a record 19,167 lionfish (that number includes “pre-derby” fishing from Feb. 1 to May 15 when 5,048 fish were caught). All the meat was sold Halperns Steak and Seafood and delivered to Whole Foods Market.
“Everyone and their mother can get lionfish in Florida at Whole Foods this week,” said Alex Fogg, marine resource coordinator for the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council and the organizer of this year’s tournament.
On the winning team, Team Florida Man, was Rachel Bowman, 40, of Marathon, who, among her several other jobs, catches lionfish for a living and sells them to the supermarket chain year round.
“I am the Florida ma’am on Team Florida Man,” Bowman said Tuesday.
Bowman and her three teammates took home a check for $10,000 for catching the most fish — 2,241.
“We did 87 dives in two days,” Bowman said.
The others on the team are John McCain from High Springs and Joshua and Joe Livingston from Destin.
“This is my first year on Team Florida Man. They needed another diver,” Bowman said.
Bowman has competed in several lionfish tournaments in recent years, and came in first place in the Lionfish World Championship in Pensacola in 2017.
Fogg said this is the most successful lionfish tournament he’s ever been been part of, and he’s organized them from Mobile Bay to Apalachicola.
“We blew this one out of the water,” Fogg said.
Not only was the tournament huge in terms of how many fish were caught, it also paid out $48,000 in cash prizes and $15,000 in fishing gear. Typically, lionfish tournaments pay out about $1,000 for first prize, which after factoring in fuel, scuba tank air and food, doesn’t leave a lot left over.
“A thousand dollars is what you need to break even,” Fogg said.
On top of the cash prize for coming in first place, the teams also have the money from Whole Foods buying their catch. Bowman wasn’t immediately sure how much Team Florida Man cleared, but their haul yielded about 1,400 pounds of meat. Buyers pay $6.25 per pound for large fish and $4 for small fish, Bowman said.
Even with removing almost 20,000 lionfish from the water, they remain a serious problem in the area because they breed and spawn so frequently. One female lionfish can produce up to 27,000 eggs every two and a half days, according to the University of Florida. And, since they are invasive, they have no natural predators hunting them.
That, however, makes them easier for people to kill, Fogg said.
“They don’t fear anything, so they kind of wait for you to shoot them. Even if you miss, they move a few feet away, so you can shoot them again,” he said.
That’s not to say the hunt isn’t exhausting. Fishing on a boat with a rod and reel is taxing enough. Going down into the depths with a scuba tank and other gear to go find and catch fish adds a significant layer of effort. And, this is on top of getting the boat ready every day and unloading and cleaning it up when they return to the dock.
“Physically, what we’re doing is so much harder,” Bowman said. “Pushing around 450-quart coolers full of ice on and off the boat. Sleeping about four and a half hours a night, and fighting over who gets the last Red Bull.”