By Captain Tony Young
It is well known that what happens below the surface of the water often goes unnoticed. This is the story of many stressors that affect the beautiful reef tract of the Florida Keys. We hear a lot about water temps, diver stress, fishing pressure, over usage, nutrient runoff, etc. But what many of us hear and often ignore, are the stressors that live and feed on the reef each day. One very “special”, beautiful, and perfectly evolved invasive predator that has had a devastating effect on the Florida Keys is the lionfish. We’ve all heard about lionfish, know what they are and why they are bad, now let’s truly hear the story about this fish in our area and the work that is being done to remove them!
I consider lionfish “special” because there truly is no other fish like it. They are perfectly evolved as a predator and are extremely impressive in their hunting techniques. They are able to travel long distances in a day, they reach sexual maturity early in their life and reproduce in high numbers, they have a gluttonous appetite, and most importantly they are armed with venomous spines that prevent potential predators from eating them. Although lionfish are not the largest fish in the ocean, they work in mass numbers feeding on our ecologically and economically important native fish species.
We all know about lionfish, however this was not always the case. Going back only a few years, restaurants were scared to cook these fish and divers avoided them. They were seen as a sort of voodoo, definitely not a fish you wanted to handle let alone try to eat. Education on Lionfish was not common and only a few divers would really go out and try to remove them. Moving forward, today lionfish are seen as a delicacy. Restaurants and grocery stores fight over them, the skin is being tanned for high end shoes, and their venomous spines have been transformed into beautiful jewelry. So, what changed, who swung the pendulum on lionfish. In my opinion, the hard work and dedication from our local non-profit Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) is responsible for education and changing the minds of the public on lionfish.
In 2009, REEF put together their first lionfish derby. The goal was to bring the community together, provide education, and most importantly remove as many lionfish as possible. Over the years, REEFs Upper Keys Lionfish Derby has removed over 33 thousand fish alone and yes, that is making a huge difference. Thanks to REEF, our local lionfish population has dramatically declined, although they are still a huge issue and will likely never disappear completely, divers are now comfortable and excited to remove these fish every time they are seen. Aside from tournaments, REEF works year-round to learn as much as possible about lionfish. They host workshops, statewide presentations, and do some amazing grant work that is improving education and eradication strategies of these fish.
As a Florida Resident and Florida Keys community member, I am very grateful for the work REEF has done over the years. Without their work, our local fishery would be very different and greatly unstable. As a diver, hunting lionfish has become one of my greatest passions. Sharing this with guests on our charters and with my friends during the annual derby, has been a true blessing! This past September’s derby our team “Forever Young” set a new tournament record with 648 fish, bringing the lionfish removal total between 22 teams up to 2,071 fish. Thank you, REEF, once again for hosting this amazing tournament and working hard for tomorrow’s fishery! To learn more about Lionfish, contact REEF directly!