>Divers will return to Florida Keys waters next month on a mission: net thousands of dollars in cash and prizes while protecting the environment from invasive lionfish. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) are hosting the second annual lionfish derby series starting May 14, in Long Key, Fla.
>In 2010, the inaugural series of lionfish derbies removed 664 of the Pacific invaders from sanctuary waters. "Anyone who appreciates the diversity of the Keys coral reef should be concerned about these invasive fish," said Sean Morton, sanctuary superintendent. "Divers have been actively engaged in lionfish removal in the Keys since 2009 and these tournaments are a way to reward them for their dedication to the reef."
>Scientists are concerned about the impacts of lionfish in South Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico waters, and their lack of a natural predator in the Atlantic. Lionfish are known to feed on ecologically and commercially important fish species — including snapper, grouper and shrimp — and could disrupt the balance of the coral reef ecosystem which supports the tourism and fishing industries of the Keys. Researchers will collect samples from lionfish caught at the derbies to learn more about lionfish genetics, growth and impacts to native marine life.
>"Fortunately for conservationists and resources managers, these fish also happen to taste great," said Lad Akins, special projects director for REEF. "Restaurants in the Keys have begun to serve local Keys lionfish and patrons can feel good that lionfish consumption benefits the environment." Each tournament also includes a detailed awareness and training briefing and lionfish tasting. NOAA has developed an "Eat Lionfish" campaign that brings together fishing communities, wholesalers and chefs in an effort to broaden U.S. consumers' awareness of this delicious invader. In 2010, REEF published "The Lionfish Cookbook" which includes 45 recipes and instructions on how to collect and prepare the fish.
>This year, more than $10,000 in cash and prizes will be awarded to the divers who bring in the most lionfish, largest lionfish and smallest lionfish during the Sanctuary/REEF series of tournaments. Teams of up to four divers may or pick up registration forms at participating derby venues. Along with dinner and raffle tickets, the $120 registration fee provides each team with a pair of puncture resistant gloves or a capture bag — important protection from lionfish spines.
>2011 lionfish derby dates and locations:
>May 14 — Fiesta Key Resort, Long Key, Fla.
>August 20 — Coconuts Restaurant, Key Largo, Fla.
>November 5 — Hurricane Hole Marina and Restaurant, Key West, Fla.
>The Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) is a 501( c)(3) marine conservation organization dedicated to protecting and preserving marine environments. REEF has been leading lionfish research, education and control efforts throughout the invaded region.
>Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects 2,900 square nautical miles of critical marine habitat, including coral reef, hard bottom, sea grass meadows, mangrove communities and sand flats. NOAA and the state of Florida manage the sanctuary. NOAA's mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources.