Pensacola is hosting the first ever annual Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day Festival and Tournament this weekend. The event is being organized by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in conjunction with the Gulf Coast Lionfish Coalition and several other local partners. The goal is to raise awareness about the threat lionfish are posing to the Gulf Coast ecosystem and fisheries.
Dan Ellinor, biological administrator for the FWC, says the main cause for concern is the lionfishes’ seemingly insatiable diet.
“They’ll pretty much clean a reef out,” Ellinor says. “They’re eating all the reef cleaners. They just eat and eat and eat.”
In addition to the fact that these lionfish are coming in and eating everything off the reefs, leaving behind virtually nothing for the local marine life, he says another part of the problem is their overpopulation. Lionfish are known to spawn as frequently as every other couple of days, averaging around 3,000-4,000 eggs per spawn.
While Ellinor doesn’t see the lionfish necessarily wiping out the grouper and snapper population, he says they are making a significant dent on the reef cleaners, parrot fish, and other small fish who feed on these reefs. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find more than 100 lionfish on a single reef the size of a small car.
The first lionfish to be spotted along the Florida coastline was back in 1985 in Dania Beach, but only in the last five years or so have the migrated to the Gulf Coast; eventually growing to become a problem.
In an effort to control the population, the FWC has set out to further educate people about lionfish, touching on the effect they have on the ecosystem, as well as encouraging more people to eat the lionfish.
Their meat has a flaky texture with a mild, sweet taste and is just as safe to eat as other more common gulf species. The Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day Festival and Tournament will feature a handful of local celebrity chefs giving lionfish cooking demonstrations and allowing those in attendance to taste the lionfish for themselves.
Unfortunately, these delicious fish aren’t all that easy to go out and catch. Ellinor points out that in order to catch a lionfish, you have to actually go out and dive for them. It’s not just a matter of throwing out a line and waiting for a bite. To make matters worse, Ellinor says there isn’t much of a commercial market for them either.
“The one commercial operation that we have, he’s actually catching them as bycatch in his lobster traps beyond 200 feet in the Keys and he’s selling them to local restaurants down there,” Ellinor says. “So the market hasn’t really caught on yet. It’s not as easy. You only have a certain amount of time when you’re down there. You can only spear as many as you can get.”
This weekend, as part of the festivities, divers will be trying to catch as many as they can, competing in a ‘lionfish derby’ organized by the Gulf Coast Lionfish Coalition. Weather pending, Ellinor expects to see quite a few lionfish pulled up over the course of the event.
“The divers here are seeing good numbers,” Ellinor says. “There’ll probably be 3,000 – 4,000 brought in if the weather is good. It looks like it’s going to be blowing a little bit this weekend, so I can’t guarantee how many are going to be brought in.”
Going out and catching the lionfish isn’t the only way for people to get involved in the population control efforts though. This weekend will also feature the kickoff of the FWC’s Reef Rangers campaign, which Ellinor notes is similar to the “Adopt-A-Highway” programs.
They have a website and a phone app for the program which includes a map so that people can search for the specific reef they want to adopt.
“You can go out and clean up the lionfish off that reef and you can report back,” Ellinor says. “You can post on Facebook, social media, you can tweet, all kinds of stuff. We’re trying to get people active. The reports and the data out there show we can do it with localized control.”
The Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day Festival and Tournament takes place this Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Plaza de Luna in downtown Pensacola and is set to take place on the Saturday following Mother’s Day in the years to come. In addition to the tournament and cooking demonstrations, there will be touch tanks and other activities for children, plenty of art and science vendors, and marine wildlife conservationist and artist Guy Harvey will be making an appearance as well.
The festival is open to the public. Those interested in participating in the lionfish derby need fill out the registration application, which can be found at GulfCoastLionfish.com. To find out more about the Reef Rangers campaign, visit ReefRangers.com.