Divers can spear lionfish at tourney

kwadlow@keynoter.comSeptember 7, 2013 

REEF project manager Lad Akins tracks down a lionfish, an invasive species that threatens the Florida Keys marine ecosystem. Spears will be allowed for the first time in a one-day lionfish derby Sept. 14 in the Upper Keys. Photo copyrighted by REEF

Lionfish will get the point, literally, Sept. 14 about how unwelcome the Pacific invader has become in Florida Keys waters.

Divers who enter in the fourth annual Key Largo Lionfish Derby get the green light to use pole spears in Upper Keys waters where all spearfishing has been banned for decades.

“This is the first time that there has been an exception for spearing, so we anticipate a pretty good turnout,” said Martha Klitzkie, general manager of the Reef Environmental Educational Foundation (REEF) that organizes the derby.

Divers will be allowed to spear lionfish in most areas of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, and in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary waters outside the protected Sanctuary Preservation Areas and Research-Only Zones. The SPAs and other no-take areas remain closed.

“The invasion of lionfish certainly is an issue here, so we’re adapting the rules for one day to get more lionfish out of the water,” said Deputy Sanctuary Superintendent Mary Tagliareni.

All the agencies involved with the Key Largo derby emphasize that spearing will be allowed for one day only, exclusively for lionfish, and limited to derby contestants who fly a special lionfish pennant from their boat.

“This definitely is not a free-for-all,” Tagliareni said. “They can’t have any other fish on board. Officers will be enforcing any violations they find.”

Spearfishing gear inside the park and sanctuary “will be restricted to the use of pole spears with paralyzer tips.”

The three-pronged paralyzer tip is largely a safety measure for divers. Lionfish are armored with 18 venomous spines that can inflict a highly painful sting. “You don’t want a lionfish sliding down the shaft toward you,” Tagliareni said.

In 2012, 40 divers in the Key Largo Lionfish derby removed 461 lionfish from Upper Keys waters in one day.

“Sanctuary and state park [managers] have been really proactive about wanting to stay on top of the lionfish problem,” Klitzkie said. “There has been talk that protected waters may be creating a safe harbor for lionfish, so this is a new and innovative way to collect this invasive species.”

Lionfish breed year-around and eat anything that they can swallow. They have no known natural predators in the Atlantic Ocean.

“Invasive lionfish are voracious predators from the Indo-Pacific that threaten Florida’s marine ecosystems by devouring more than 70 species of native fish and invertebrates,” according to REEF.

“Though lionfish may seem unstoppable, divers can significantly reduce local populations and local control is proving to be highly successful.”

Complete rules for the contest are posted online: www.REEF.org/lionfish/derbies.

A mandatory captains’ meeting will held at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 13 at derby headquarters at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Divers are encouraged to attend.

Teams compete for awards for the most lionfish, largest and smallest lionfish.

Spectators are welcome to attend the awards ceremony that includes sessions on cleaning lionfish. Samples of cooked lionfish will be available.

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