More than 8,000 of the non-native fluttering lionfish were taken in the second annual Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day Festival last weekend.
In Pensacola alone, 8,089 lionfish were removed in only two days at the Gulf Coast Lionfish Coalition Tournament.
Lionfish, voracious eaters who gulp up sea life from offshore reefs, were first found in off the Jupiter Inlet and into the Loxahatchee River in 2010.
Reseachers call lionfish voracious predators that eat tiny shrimp, one of the food sources for juvenile grouper, snook, mullet and other sealife, as well as the small fish themselves.
Locally, diver registration is open for the sixth annual lionfish roundup planned for Saturday, June 4, at the Jupiter Pointe Marina, 18753 SE Federal Highway in Tequesta starting at noon.
About $5,000 in cash awards are planned, including $1,000 for smallest, $1,000 for largest and $1,000 for the diver who gets the most lionfish.
Last year, divers collected about 570 lionfish, the most ever.
The largest was about 17 inches.
Chefs will be on hand to show visitors how to clean and cook the fish. Some fish are donated for research.
“The event gets larger every year. It seems every year we get more lionfish and larger lionfish,” event organizer April Price said.
During the weekend, more than 7,000 people (more than double last year’s numbers) attended the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) festival, where visitors got to taste lionfish, see filet demonstrations, check out art and conservation booths and much more.
Charles Meyling of Montgomery broke the state record for longest lionfish caught in Gulf waters when he brought in a 445 millimeter lionfish, or about 18 inches.
At FWC supported events statewide that weekend and leading up to that weekend, another 5,978 lionfish were removed for a total of 14,067 statewide (2,975 lionfish were removed statewide in 2015).
“These numbers are a great example of the agency’s efforts to get the public educated about and involved in lionfish removal,” said Jessica McCawley, Division of Marine Fisheries Management director. “Events like this one will encourage continued involvement in proactively and successfully removing lionfish.”
Thanks to the growing interest in lionfish as a food fish, many lionfish harvested around the state will be sold commercially in places like New Orleans, Atlanta, Destin, in Florida Whole Foods, and by Edible Invaders in Pensacola. Another selection will go to Wharton and Brandon high schools in Hillsborough County, where three students will be studying lionfish diet using DNA barcoding for an upcoming STEM fair project.
Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day (first Saturday after Mother’s Day) was created by FWC Commissioners to raise awareness about lionfish — nonnative, invasive species that have a potential negative impact on native species and habitat.
The FWC thanks all of the sponsors and organizations across the state that helped make this day possible.
Want to help remove lionfish? Participate in the 2016 Lionfish Challenge or the Panhandle Pilot Program. Remove lionfish and get rewarded. Visit MyFWC.com/Lionfish for more.
Lionfish and other exotic pets that can no longer be cared for should never be released into Florida waters or lands.
To learn more about where to surrender an exotic pet for adoption, visit MyFWC.com/WildlifeHabitats and click on “Nonnative Species” and “Exotic Pet Amnesty Program.”
Lionfish removal totals
655: FSDA Lionfish Calcutta – St. Petersburg
3,478: Northeast Florida Lionfish Blast – Jacksonville
727: Lion Tamer Tournament – Panama City Beach
25: Reef Environmental Education Foundation – Key Largo
31: Sebastian Lionfish Fest – Sebastian
1,062: Gulf Coast Lionfish Coalition Pre-Tournament – Pensacola