ISLAMORADA, Florida Keys — Divers can vie for prize money while helping preserve native reef fish populations during the 14th annual Florida Keys Lionfish Derby & Festival. Scheduled Thursday through Sunday, Sept. 7-10, the fun and competitive event is sponsored by Reef Environmental Education Foundation.
Derby teams in two divisions are to hit the water to capture and remove as many non-native lionfish as possible. The Apex Predators division is designed with greater prize money for competitive divers, while Reef Defenders is a more casual division with less prize money but equally credible bragging rights.
Over $6,000 in cash and prizes is to be awarded to those scoring the most lionfish, the largest lionfish, the smallest and to the winner of the golden fish raffle award.
Teams of two to four people can register online by Thursday, Aug. 10, for an early bird rate of $75 per team. Thereafter, registration is $100 per team until 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 7.
A mandatory team captains meeting follows final registration at 6:30 p.m. The meeting’s focus is lionfish ecology, best collecting tools and safe handling techniques. All team members are encouraged to attend.
Derby participants can hunt from sunrise to sundown Friday and Saturday, Sept. 8-9, collecting lionfish by netting or spearing while scuba diving, 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.
Although there is no scheduled hunting Sunday, Sept. 10, all fish are to be turned in by 12:30 p.m. to the scoring station at Postcard Inn Beach Resort and Marina, mile marker 84 oceanside in Islamorada.
Sunday’s festival activities, open to the public and set for 12 noon until 4 p.m. at Postcard Inn, include team scoring and awards. Attendees can enjoy live music, games, products from marine and conservation-themed vendors and raffles for prizes.
REEF staff will provide lionfish fillet and dissection demonstrations and local chefs are to offer cooking demonstrations and free tastings. Although commonly served as ceviche or sushi, lionfish can be prepared like any other fish and is similar to halibut or grouper in texture and flavor.
The Lionfish Derby awards ceremony is scheduled to begin at 3:30 p.m. At least one member of each team must be present to collect prizes.
For over a decade, REEF has joined the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the Keys dive community to provide hands-on opportunities for “citizen scientist” recreational divers.
Lionfish hunters focused on sustainability can 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.
Event details and REEF information: reef.org/events/2023-florida-
Islamorada visitor information: fla-keys.com/islamorada or 1-800-FAB-KEYS
Florida Keys diving information: fla-keys.com/diving