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In August/September 2015, trained volunteers and research partners conducted fish surveys and removed 317 lionfish from Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS) as part of the first ever Lionfish Invitational.

A second invitational was held in August/September 2016, which resulted in the removal of 394 lionfish.

Our next invitational is scheduled for August 27-31, 2017. Applications for the 2017 trip are now available and due by May 1st.

Group of divers gathered on the to deck of a dive boat for a photograph
27 volunteers and 3 sanctuary staff participated in the first Lionfish Invitational. (Image: FGBNMS/Drinnen)

In recent years, national marine sanctuaries have hosted education and outreach events to raise awareness about the lionfish threat, including lionfish derbies where dive teams compete to remove lionfish. The Lionfish Invitational is the FGBNMS's version of this, with an added science component.

White board listing the data from the Lionfish Invitational
Removal numbers were posted on the FLING so everyone could see the results of their efforts.
(Image: FGBNMS/Drinnen)

Because of the remote nature of the sanctuary, only a limited number of people can participate, so interested divers are asked to submit applications and 22 volunteers are selected.

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Science Activities

The Lionfish Invitational isn't just about removing invasive lionfish, but also about understanding how the invasion and removals are impacting the sanctuary.

Before and after lionfish are removed at each buoy location, a science team of 8 divers conducts surveys to determine what species, quantities and sizes of fish are present.

Scuba gear lined up on a bench before a dive
Fish survey slates hang off the science team's gear before the next dive. (Image: FGBNMS/Drinnen)

The 2015 science team consisted of divers from FGBNMS, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS), Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), Oregon State University (OSU), Texas A&M University (TAMU), and Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.

Group photo of 8 scuba divers that comprised the science team for this trip
Back row: Steve Gittings (ONMS), Raven Walker (TAMU)
Front Row: Lad Akins (REEF), Kelly Drinnen (FGBNMS), Stephanie Green (OSU), Michelle Johnston (FGBNMS), Kevin Buch (OSU), Desiree Bell (Audubon Aquarium)

(Image: FGBNMS/Drinnen)

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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.

2 lionfish containment units called ZooKeepers on the deck of the boat
ZooKeepers were 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 trained how to protect both the reef and themselves when spearing lionfish.

A lionfish's mouth sticking out of the funnel at one end of a ZooKeeper container
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

One ZooKeeper is assigned to each dive team. After each removal dive, the ZooKeepers are emptied into baskets for tallying.

Looking inside a ZooKeeper full of lionfish

A ZooKeepr turned on end and emptied into a basket

Basket full of lionfish from one ZooKeeper after one dive
Captured lionfish were emptied into baskets for easier handling. (Images: FGBNMS/Drinnen)

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

Lad Akins, wearing puncture resistant gloves as he  measures a lionfish
(Image: FGBNMS/Drinnen)

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

Labeled Ziploc bag ready to be filled with one group's catch
The lionfish going into this bag were captured 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 them. (Image: FGBNMS/Drinnen)

The largest lionfish caught during the 2015 Invitational was 431mm (17 inches) and the smallest was 76mm (3 inches). In 2016 we captured one even smaller, at 30mm (1 inch).

Large lionfish being measured on the fish trough
Largest lionfish caught. (Image: FGBNMS/Drinnen)

Lad Akins holding the largest lionfish caught during the Invitational
Lad Akins holds the largest lionfish for everyone to see. Stephanie Green, background, is labeling a bag to hold it. (Image: FGBNMS/Drinnen)

Small lionfish laying in the fish trough for measuring
Smallest lionfish caught. (Image: FGBNMS/Drinnen)

At a later date, these lionfish are evaluated for gut contents, genetics and age.

This work is part of an effort to better understand the effects of invasive lionfish on native fish communities and habitats in the sanctuary.

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For more information on the issues caused by lionfish in the sanctuary, please visit our Invasive Lionfish page.

To learn more about the data we collect from lionfish, please visit our Lionfish Research page.

Sunset on the horizong behind the boat
At the end of the day, things were as beautiful topside as they were underwater! (Image: FGBNMS/Drinnen)


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