Participants killed 16,609 lionfish in Florida's Lionfish Challenge, which closed Sept. 30.
“The success of this program really shows what Florida’s residents and visitors can do when faced with a conservation challenge such as lionfish,” said Brian Yablonski, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) chairman.
Lionfish are a nonnative species that were first noted in Florida waters in the mid-80s and have since spread up the Atlantic coast and across the Gulf of Mexico. They are prolific and feed heavily on native fish, especially juveniles and smaller species. Human removal is the only way to keep their numbers in check.
The Lionfish Challenge rewarded participants who took 50 or more lionfish with a variety of incentives including a program T-shirt, a commemorative coin, the opportunity to take an additional spiny lobster per day during the two-day sport season and entry into raffle drawings for prizes such as Neritic polespears, $100 dive tank refills and fishing licenses.
The competition began on Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day, the first Saturday after Mother’s Day.
Volusia County resident David Garrett took the most lionfish with a total of 3,324. John Dickinson came in second with a total of 2,408 lionfish removed.
“I want the reefs to benefit from this and to save our native fish,” said David Garrett, who is a commercial fisherman.
Garrett will be officially crowned Lionfish King at the Nov. 16 Commission meeting in St. Petersburg. He will also receive a lifetime saltwater fishing license and be featured on the cover of the January 2017 Saltwater Regulations Publication.
Ninety-five people participated in the challenge from across the state and the southeastern United States.
The FWC would like to thank the 34 dive shops across Florida that supported this program by acting as checkpoints. Shops located in the Panhandle continue to participate in the Panhandle Pilot Program.
Panhandle Pilot Program
The Panhandle Pilot Program focuses on lionfish removal efforts off Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf and Franklin counties. For every 100 lionfish checked in from this seven-county region between May 2016 and May 2017, the harvester will be eligible to receive a tag allowing them to take either a red grouper or a cobia that is over the bag limit from state waters (all other regulations, including seasons and size limits, still apply). The state will issue up to a total of 100 red grouper and 30 cobia tags to successful participants in the pilot program. So far, 38 tags have been issued.
In addition, the first 10 persons or groups that check in 500 or more lionfish during this one-year period will be given the opportunity to name an artificial reef. Four teams have qualified to name an artificial reef so far, and two of the four have already been named.