Lionfish new top predator of the reef

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Federal and state fisheries on Saturday will open areas currently closed to spearfishing in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in hopes of putting a larger dent in the local lionfish population. Invasive lionfish are voracious predators that threaten Florida’s marine ecosystems and prey upon more than 70 species of native fish and invertebrates.

Lionfish easily fend off predators with their 18 venomous spines, making them a new top predator on the reef. They also reproduce every four days, year-round.

Recognizing the need to eradicate the fish, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have loosened restrictions for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation’s (REEF) lionfish derby on Saturday.

The agencies have issued single-day permits for Saturday’s derby to allow spearing in Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary existing management areas, and state waters off the Upper Keys. This single-day derby permit does not allow spearfishing in the Sanctuary Preservation Areas and research-only areas. Spearfishing gear will be restricted to the use of pole spears with three-prong paralyzer tips.

Teams will also be required to fly special lionfish pennants during the derby.

“The sanctuary is committed to controlling the establishment of lionfish on our reefs through the use of education, adaptive management and our permitting program,” said Sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton.

Hopes are high for this year’s derby. Last year, divers removed 461 lionfish in the single-day event to help halt the invasive species, REEF spokeswoman Keri Kenning said.

REEF and its sponsors — John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Divers Direct, Zookeeper and the Ocean Reef Conservation Association — are offering more than $3,500 in cash prizes, according to Kenning.

Teams will be competing for awards for the most, largest and smallest lionfish caught. Spectators are also encouraged to attend the scoring and lionfish tasting activities.

Complete rules and restrictions are available at www.REEF.org/lionfish/derbies.

These rules will be covered during the captains meeting at 6:30 p.m. tonight at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Captains are required to attend, and all other participants are strongly encouraged to attend.

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