ISLAMORADA, Florida Keys — Divers can vie for prize money while helping preserve native reef fish populations during the 13th annual Florida Keys Lionfish Derby & Festival. Scheduled Thursday through Sunday, Sept. 8-11, the fun and competitive event is sponsored by the 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 monies for more 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 awaits those who score the most lionfish, the largest, smallest and the winner of the golden fish raffle award.
Teams of two to four people can register online before Aug. 8 for an early bird rate of $75 per team. Thereafter, registration until 6:15 p.m. Sept. 8 is $100 per team.
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, 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.
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 Beach Resort and Marina, mile marker 84 oceanside in Islamorada.
There are to be additional lionfish drop-off locations at 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 mile marker 24 on Summerland Key.
Each are to have designated drop-off hours during the derby weekend, which will be shared with all registered teams and listed in the official derby rules.
Sunday’s festival activities, open to the public and set for 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. at Postcard Inn Resort and Marina, include team scoring and awards. Attendees can enjoy live music, 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 can be prepared like any other fish and has 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.
Individuals 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.
During REEF’s Earth Day 2022 Lionfish Derby, a single team of divers removed 426 lionfish to set a one-day spearfishing record.
Event details and REEF information: reef.org/events/florida-keys-lionfish-derby-and-festival, reef.org or 305-852-0030
Divers can capture lionfish, using pole spears or nets, from sunrise to sundown Friday and Saturday.
Derby teams in two divisions are to hit the water to capture and remove as many non-native lionfish as possible. A lionfish containment device is an integral tool.