Since the mid-2000s, coasts off the southeastern United States and the Caribbean have been ravaged by the lionfish: an invasive species hailing from the Indo-Pacific, which was reportedly introduced to the environment over 30 years ago. Equal parts voracious and venomous, these creatures have wrought havoc to reef systems by gobbling up smaller prey fish and breeding in massive numbers; their impact has caused a deadly cascading effect on an already fragile eco-system. In turn, communities throughout these affected regions have banded together to share critical information on the species, promote lionfish as a foodstuff, and enact measures to curtail the spreading threat. One program, the Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament, expresses the importance of stamping out lionfish while providing a friendly competition chock full of prizes.
Article by John Tapley; photos courtesy Andy Ross
Taking place May 16 to 19 in Destin, Florida, the Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament is an opportunity for divers and hunters to test their mettle against the lionfish scourge and each other. The tournament is designed for teams ranging from individuals to up to four participants. During the first days of the tourney, teams will compete for cash prizes across three categories: most lionfish caught, the largest lionfish, and the smallest. Each category has six winner tiers.
“This is going to be the largest lionfish tournament in the world to date,” says tournament director Andy Ross. “[It] will have more than 150 participants with the largest cash and prize value than any other tournament we’ve had in the past.”
Following the weigh-in on Sunday morning, participants will be able to keep their prized catch. Buyers for the venomous pests will be on-site for divers and teams with commercial lionfish harvesting licenses; according to Ross, the fish are valued around $6 per pound. Participants can also donate their fish to the tournament and earn three raffle tickets for each.
While the tournament proper opens in a few weeks, a pre-tournament fishing feature has been going on since February 1 of this year. With the pre-tournament system, divers and hunters have had ample time to collect the venomous predators in advance, which helps streamline the event. Pre-tourney participants are rewarded for their efforts and are entered into a raffle prize category specifically designed for them; the catch is used to help promote lionfish awareness and removal. As of this writing, over 2,800 lionfish have been collected through this system, and Ross predicts this amount could extend beyond 4,000.
Ross elaborates on the benefits of this pre-tournament program, both for participants and handling logistics, as well as spreading the word:
“The pre-tournament is an important part of this event. Our main event is only two days long – spearfishing and lionfish on a Friday and Saturday with the prizes and weigh-in awards on Sunday – but the pre-tournament starts a few months early. A diver can go out and get 100 lionfish and for each fish they get two raffle entries: 200 entries for huge prizes: everything from dive gear to dive computers to gift certificates to local restaurants and vacation packages.
“[The pre-tourney] keeps the lionfish coming out of the water on the regular basis – more than just a couple days. It keeps divers enthusiastic about getting lionfish since they get rewards and large prizes. And it allows us to take the lionfish that are turned in. We process and filet them and use those filets for Restaurant Week: seven days in a row, prior to the main event, we’ll have a different restaurant featuring lionfish.”
Lionfish hunting has a broad appeal throughout the southern United States, and as in previous years, 2019’s tourney will feature hunters representing several States.
“It does a great job in bringing participants but also brings about awareness to the public and puts a big eye on our problem in the Gulf of Mexico, Florida, and other states,” says Ross. “I’ve got people coming from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and all the way up to Georgia and North Carolina. It’s a series of world class events we’ve got going here.”
Ross has organized similar lionfish tournaments and events for five years, and this year he is partnering with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) and the Emerald Coast Convention and Visitor’s Bureau for the traditional Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day (LRAD) Festival. The LRAD Festival will run concurrently with the tourney on May 18 and 19, and will feature a bevy of activities such as art, diving, marine conservation exhibits, live music, and lionfish filet demo and tasting opportunities.
With just a few weeks away, the Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament is shaping up to be a prolific event for divers, anglers, and spereos looking to help combat an ever-present threat – while enjoying camaraderie and friendly competition under the warm southern Florida sun. During last year’s tournament and pre-tournament days, participants caught over 14,000 lionfish. Ross is confident this year’s event will be as impactful – if not more – than ever.
“It sounds like we’re probably going to do the same this year,” he says. “Right now we have over 120 participants signed up and we’re expecting 150 to 200 by the time we get to the main event days.”
The Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament is currently accepting sponsors to help make this year’s event greater than before.
For more details on the tournament, including information on sponsorship and participation, visit www.emeraldcoastopen.com.