The Science Behind Sanctuary Lionfish Derbies

lionfish being weighed

Since 2010, four Florida Keys lionfish derbies have removed 1,200 lionfish from sanctuary waters. Co-organized by Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Reef Environmental Education Foundation, these one-day removal events are more than just fun and prizes.

The sanctuary and REEF have been actively working with the dive and science communities since the first invasive lionfish arrived in the Florida Keys in January, 2009. Lionfish derbies have proven an effective way to raise local awareness of lionfish while learning more about the science of the invasion in the Atlantic.

When derby teams submit their haul of collected lionfish, event organizers gather information about where the lionfish were captured and in what types of areas, to aid determining whether lionfish may prefer one type of habitat over another. In the Atlantic, lionfish have been found everywhere from the mangrove shallows to depths of 1,000 feet. Learning more about their preferred habitats could help sanctuary and reef managers focus their control strategies and research.

Once lionfish are measured for the derby competition, scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey weigh and measure the fish, and take their stomachs as well as ear bones (otoliths). These samples helps scientists learn more about lionfish genetics and growth, as well as impacts to native marine life. Studies of lionfish stomach contents in the Bahamas have shown that they eat both commercially and ecologically important native species, including snappers, groupers and parrotfish.

After samples are taken for science, the largest lionfish are filleted and cooked in the host restaurant’s kitchen. Lionfish bites are provided to derby participants and guests, since the best control strategy for lionfish to date is consumption as a food source. Fortunately for sanctuary and other coral reef managers, these fish taste great. Keys residents are now regularly cooking the lionfish catch in sanctuary waters, and restaurants in the Keys and across the country have begun to feature lionfish on their menus.

While divers in the sanctuary are enjoying a day on the water cleaning the reefs of lionfish, sanctuary mangers and scientists are simultaneously learning more about this marine invader and bringing additional awareness to the issue of invasive species.


Did You Know?

Lionfish are slow-moving and conspicuous, so they must rely on their unusual coloration and fins to discourage would-be predators from eating them.

Lionfish are now one of the top predators in many coral reef environments of the Atlantic. Lionfish consume over 50 species of fish including some economically and ecologically important species.

These voracious predators are active hunters who ambush their prey by using their outstretched, fan-like pectoral fins to slowly pursue and "corner" them.