More than one-thousand lionfish have been removed from the Gulf of Mexico this year as part of the Emerald Coast Open, and it's just getting started.
The goal is to remove as many of the invasive fish as possible, before they squeeze out fish native to the Gulf.
Researchers believe a few aquarium fish set loose are responsible for the explosion of lionfish in Florida waters. They are native to the Indo-Pacific and have no natural predators in the Gulf. They reproduce every four days. The growing population is taking food and space from Gulf staples, like snapper and grouper. Scientists also fear lionfish will kill off species like algae-eating parrotfish, which keep reefs clear of seaweed.
Every lionfish captured is a step to keeping the population under control.
The Emerald Coast Open's pre-tournament competition started February 1, 2019. Each lionfish turned in by a registered participant is worth two entries into a prize giveaway. The lionfish collected will be used for research or prepared for tastings at the Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day Festival in May.
The festival includes a three-day tournament May 16-19, which awards cash prizes for catching the most lionfish, the largest lionfish, or the smallest lionfish.
The registration fee of $75 includes both the pre-tournament and the tournament. The fee increases to $100 after April 1st.
The week leading up to the festival has been dubbed Lionfish Restaurant Week. Each day, May 10th-16th, a different restaurant will offer samples of fresh lionfish from the Gulf.
The festival will be held on May 18th and 19th at AJ's and HarborWalk Village in Destin. Admission is free and includes family-friendly activities, fillet demonstrations and tastings, live music, and information booths.