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Sarasota Lionfish Derby takes a bite out of invasive species

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SARASOTA, Fla. -- There are now 456 less lionfish swimming in the Gulf of Mexico following the second annual Sarasota Lionfish Derby, which ended on July 12.

The Derby is hosted by Mote Marine Laboratory in cooperation with Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), which helps study and address the lionfish invasion and sanctions official Lionfish Derbies, and ZooKeeper, the Sarasota-based manufacturer of the leading lionfish containment unit used throughout invaded areas.

Eight teams of 27 divers and snorkelers from Sarasota, Venice, Tallahassee, Fort Pierce, Palmetto, St. Petersburg, Tampa, Vero Beach and Boca Raton, Fla., and Dallas, Texas, vied to catch the most lionfish, the largest lionfish and the smallest lionfish in Gulf waters ranging from Collier to Escambia County. The Derby lasted from the evening of July 10 through early afternoon on July 12, when cash prizes were awarded to first, second and third place winners in each category. Additional event proceeds will help support science and education programs by Mote and REEF.

Lionfish are venomous, fast-reproducing fish that pose a major threat to Florida’s native species and ecosystems. They consume more than 70 different species of fish and crustaceans, and in heavily invaded areas they have reduced fish populations by up to 90 percent and continue to consume native fishes at unsustainable rates. The only controlling predators of invasive lionfish in Florida are humans. Lionfish Derbies are an important way to harvest large numbers of this invasive species and train more people to safely remove them.

A team from St. Petersburg caught 152 lionfish -- the most caught by one team at the entire event. That same team won an award for catching the largest lionfish, measuring in at 418 mm. A team with members from Tampa, Palmetto, and Sarasota won an award for the smallest lionfish, with the creature measuring at only 122 mm.

The Sarasota Derby culminated Sunday with a celebration at the Sarasota Outboard Club, next-door to Mote on City Island, Sarasota. There, the public visited educational booths about lionfish, checked out gear designed to capture them, tasted fresh lionfish ceviche prepared by staff from REEF and ZooKeeper, and watched lionfish be counted and measured by REEF staff and dissected by Mote scientists and graduate students involved in the RTR Lionfish Ecosystem Modeling Workshop through University of Florida. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and others shared information about the lionfish invasion and how people can help.