Lionfish take center stage for tournament and festival in Destin

Tina Harbuck
The Destin Log

More than 100 divers brought in about 8,000 lionfish in the Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament at AJ’s Seafood & Oyster Bar during the weekend. 

Not only was it a time to rid the Gulf of Mexico of the invasive lionfish species, but it was a time to celebrate with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's seventh annual Lionfish Removal and Awareness Festival at HarborWalk Village and along the docks at AJ’s. 

Capt. Josh Livingston of Team Florida Man spears a lionfish just off Destin-Fort Walton Beach and gets ready to scoop it into the zoo keeper tube. Team Florida Man of Destin won the Emerald Coast Open.

The harborfront was abuzz Saturday and Sunday with folks visiting the various vendors set up to promote and educate people about lionfish. 

The lionfish is a predatory reef fish. They eat native fish, which can reduce native populations and have negative effects on the overall reef habitat and health because they can eliminate species that serve important ecological roles such as fish that keep algae in check on the reefs. Lionfish also compete for food with native predatory fish such as grouper and snapper, according to the FWC website. 

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The dive team hauling in the most lionfish in the two-day tournament was Capt. Josh Livingston and Team Florida Man. They pulled in 1,371 lionfish. 

Livingston said he set out for his team to do 100 dives. They managed to do 50 dives the first day and 37 the second. 

Michael Norberg and Jessica Valek with Okaloosa County Coastal Resource Management measure and record the size of lionfish brought to the docks Saturday.

“We couldn’t quite get there on the second day because of weather slowing us down, and rough seas,” Livingston said. 

“But we still got in as many dives as we could, and we averaged about 15 fish a site,” he said, which is what he expected. 

Livingston did a little bit of scouting ahead of the tournament and found that Destin had the most lionfish on artificial reefs. 

In 2019, Team Florida Man hauled in 2,300 lionfish. 

“We just averaged more fish per dive,” he said.

This year Livingstone said the numbers were lower, which are good for the environment. 

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Nevertheless, “We did the very best we could.” 

Livingston and his team were diving by 5:45 a.m. each day and ended at 7:45 p.m. 

During the two-day tournament, Livingston said they did 14 hours of diving, 18 hours on the water and only three hours of sleep. 

Jason Dodd of Emerald Coast Scuba shows off one of the lionfish his team caught Saturday.

For their efforts, they won top prize of $10,000 for the most lionfish. 

The largest lionfish was brought in by Team Bottom Time, at 440 millimeters (17.6 inches) in length.  

The smallest was a 41-millimeter (1.64-inch) lionfish brought in by Team in the Clouds. 

“That’s the tiniest one I’ve seen,” said Alex Fogg, Okaloosa County's coastal resource manager, who was heading up the tournament. 

Mark Ard (right) marketing director for the Florida Department of State, shares information about lionfish with festival-goers in Destin on Saturday.

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By the close of day on Saturday, about 650 lionfish had been brought in and measured. But Sunday was the big day, and when all was said and done, 7,745 lionfish were brought in and measured.

“It was mayhem,” Fogg said of Sunday's haul. 

Sailor Reynolds dissects a lionfish to see what it had eaten. Reynolds was part of the Navarre Beach Science Station set up at the festival.

Fogg said a lot of teams bring in their catches from the two days at one time. 

However, a few catches came in Saturday. 

Team Emerald Coast Scuba with Capt. Tom Schmitz came ashore with a little more than 200 lionfish. 

Ryan Bone of Team Under Pressure shows off a zoo keeper tube used to collect lionfish.

Schmitz said they were diving just off Destin in about 80 feet of water. 

“Right now, they are everywhere … and they think they are bulletproof,” Schmitz said. 

He said someone can get just inches away from a lionfish and it won't budge. Once they are shot with a pole spear, they are put in a tube called a zoo keeper. 

Tazz Felde of Team Under Pressure shows off one of the many lionfish the team brought in Saturday.

Before the tournament closed Saturday, Team Under Pressure came in with 190 lionfish. Ryan Bone said his team did about 56 dives total in 80 to 120 feet of water. 

In addition to the tournament, the festival was happening along the boardwalk and in restaurants, which served up lionfish dishes throughout the week.