Lionfish Invitational

Two women on a boat--one holding up a small lionfish, the other with a clipboard to record data
Michelle Johnston and Stephanie Green getting ready to collect data on a lionfish removed during the 2015 Lionfish Invitational. (Image: FGBNMS/Drinnen)

In recent years, lionfish derbies have served to raise awareness of theĀ invasive lionfish problem and remove large quantities of lionfish throughout the tropical western Atlantic (southeastern United States, Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico). Unfortunately, this type of one-day dive/snorkel event is not practical for Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary due to the remote location and the depth of our reefs.

As an alternative, we host a Lionfish Invitational. This four-day event is a science-based effort in which 11 dive teams work to remove as many lionfish as possible, while also recording helpful data on lionfish activity and sightings. In addition, a science team of 8 divers conducts surveys to determine what species, quantities and sizes of fish are present at each designated site before and after the removals.

A group of 8 divers in scuba gear ready to make a dive
The science team ready to conduct their next surveys. (Image: FGBNMS/Drinnen)

The first Lionfish Invitational was held in 2015 and we have scheduled at least one invitational a year since then. Our current partners in this effort are Texas Lionfish Control Unit, Ripley's Aquarium of Canada, Fling Charters, and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.

We have scheduled two trips for the 2018 season:

June 24-28, 2018
August 26-30, 2018

Applications for these trips are now available and must be submitted by March 31, 2018.

Download 2018 Lionfish Invitational Application (170kb pdf)

Lionfish Removals

Although spear fishing in the sanctuary is illegal, specific collection permits are issued by the sanctuary for this event since pole spears are the most effective means of capturing lionfish.

A pair of modified white pvc tubes called ZooKeeper Lionfish Containment Units lying on the deck of a boat
ZooKeepers are used to protect divers from lionfish spines and allow them to collect multiple fish each dive. (Image: FGBNMS/Drinnen)

Before the trip begins, participants are also trained to protect both the reef and themselves when spearing lionfish.

Looking in the funnel end of a ZooKeeper where a lionfish's open mouth is showing
The funnel at one end of a ZooKeeper allows the diver to push a speared lionfish into the container then remove just the spear. (Image: FGBNMS/Drinnen)

Lionfish Data

After each removal dive, the ZooKeepers are emptied into baskets for tallying.

Looking inside a ZooKeeper full of lionfish
Lionfish being emptied from a ZooKeeper into a large orange basket
Captured lionfish are emptied into baskets for easier handling. (Image: FGBNMS/Drinnen)

One by one, each lionfish is measured, bagged and tagged before heading to the freezer.

A man wearing puncture proof gloves measuring a lionfish on a fish board
Taking an official measurement of a captured lionfish. (Image: FGBNMS/Drinnen)

Each batch of lionfish is labeled to account for where and when the fish were captured and by which group.

A Ziploc bag labeled with Sept 1/15, Dive 4, 5:30 pm, EFGB #4, Zoo#
The lionfish going into this bag were removed at East Flower Garden Bank, buoy #4, on September 1, 2015 during dive #4 that began at 5:30 p.m. The ZooKeeper number on the label will identify which dive team caught these lionfish. (Image: FGBNMS/Drinnen)

The largest lionfish caught during a Lionfish Invitational was 431mm (17 inches) and the smallest was 30mm (1 inch).

Large lionfish being measured on a fish board
The largest lionfish caught in the sanctuary to date. (Image: FGBNMS/Drinnen)

A running total is kept of all the removals, identifying how many were sighted and removed by each group, along with maximum and minimum sizes. Each year, as divers become more experienced and get to know the sanctuary better, the number of lionfish removals increases.

Total numbers of lionfish sighted and removed throughout the 2015 Invitational.
A total of 317 lionfish were removed during the 2015 Lionfish Invitational. (Image: FGBNMS/Drinnen)

At a later date, these lionfish are dissected and evaluated for gut contents, genetics and age. This information helps us better understand the effects of invasive lionfish on native fish communities and habitats in the sanctuary.

Questions? Contact Michelle.A.Johnston@noaa.gov