ISLAMORADA, Florida Keys — Divers can vie for prize money while helping preserve native reef fish populations during a fun, competitive Florida Keys Lionfish Derby & Festival Thursday through Sunday, Sept. 9-12, sponsored by Reef Environmental Education Foundation.
Derby teams are tasked with capturing and removing as many non-native lionfish from Keys waters as possible. Awards for the most lionfish, the largest, smallest and a golden fish raffle award are up for grabs.
Divers compete in one of two divisions — Apex Predators, designed with greater prize monies for more competitive divers, or Reef Defenders, a more casual division with less prize money but equally credible bragging rights.
Teams of two to four people can register online by Aug. 10 for an early-bird rate of $85 per team. Registration is $100 per team after Aug. 10 and on or before Sept. 9 at 5 p.m.
A mandatory team captains meeting follows at 6:30 p.m., though captains can attend the meeting remotely. Details are to be emailed upon team signup/registration. The meeting’s focus is lionfish ecology, best collecting tools, safe handling and techniques, so all team members are encouraged to attend.
Derby participants can hunt from sunrise to sunset Friday and Saturday, collecting lionfish by netting or spearing while on scuba, snorkeling or free diving, and following all federal and state fishing regulations. Participants can dive from a private vessel or with a professional dive operator. Participating dive charters can be found at https://www.reef.org/events/
Although there is no scheduled hunting Sunday, all fish are to be turned in by 11 a.m. to the scoring station at Postcard Inn Resort and Marina, mile marker 84 oceanside. Additional lionfish drop-off locations are to be the REEF Campus in Key Largo, mile marker 98.3 in the median of the Florida Keys Overseas Highway, and Mote Marine Laboratory’s field station near MM 24 on Summerland Key.
Each location’s designated drop-off hours will be shared with all registered teams and listed in the official derby rules.
Sunday’s festival activities, including team scoring and awards, are open to the public and are to take place from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. at Postcard Inn Resort and Marina. Attendees can enjoy live music by South Florida’s “soulgrass” band, The Copper Tones, as well as games, products from environmentally minded vendors and raffles for prizes.
REEF staff will provide lionfish fillet and dissection demonstrations, and local chefs are to offer cooking demonstrations and tastings. Although commonly served as ceviche or sushi, lionfish fillets can be prepared like any other fish and have been likened to halibut or grouper in texture and flavor.
For over a decade REEF has joined the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the dive community to provide hands-on opportunities for “citizen scientist” recreational divers.
These sustainability-focused individuals actively remove the invasive, voracious species that was introduced to Florida waters during the 1980s, lessening the pressure on existing reef fish ecosystems and providing a healthy new food source for human consumption.
Visit REEF headquarters to learn more about the conservation-minded organization.
Event information: REEF.org or 305-852-0030
Florida Keys visitor information: fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS
Florida Keys diving information: fla-keys.com/divingSocial: Facebook • Twitter • Instagram • YouTube • Keys Voices blog