It’s tough to say which are more disliked in Florida: invasive pythons or invasive lionfish.
But based on sheer numbers, venomous lionfish appear to be besting eviction efforts.
That became clear when the world’s largest lionfish event — the annual Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament — announced May 23 that divers caught a record 24,699 lionfish off Florida’s Gulf Coast.
That’s nearly 11,000 more lionfish than were caught in the 2022 tournament, officials said.
Equally startling is the fact the predatory fish appear to be getting bigger.
Average for lionfish is 12 to 15 inches off Florida, but diver Dyllan Camplejohn of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, caught a 17.95-inch lionfish in the tournament, officials said. That’s the biggest in the event’s five-year history and just under an inch shy of the state record. Camplejohn was competing with the Dibs On Bottom dive team, which won $5,000.
“The majority of the all of the tournament lionfish, including the largest one, were purchased by Castaway Waterfront Restaurant & Sushi Bar out of Marathon, Florida in the Keys,” tournament officials said.
The fish were caught by 144 divers from around the country who descended on the Panhandle in hopes of sharing $100,000 in prize money, officials said. The tournament was held May 19-20.
A dive team known as the Deep Water Mafia led the event with a catch of 2,898 lionfish, officials said.
Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific and Red Sea, but the species began appearing off Florida’s Atlantic Coast in 1985. They quickly spread, appearing in the northern Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission says.
The species is known for having 18 venomous spines and a painful sting that can cause “changes in heart rate, abdominal pain, sweating, and fainting,” according to Poison.org. Deaths are rare, but symptoms can last up to 30 days, the site says.
Lionfish are also notorious for being the only species that blows water “in an effort to get prey to turn toward the lionfish before being devoured,” FWC reports.
“Lionfish are stalking predators that often corral prey into a corner. They can consume prey that are more than half of their own length and are known to prey on more than 70 marine fish and invertebrate species,” the FWC says.
“They also compete for food with native predatory fish such as grouper and snapper and may negatively impact the overall reef habitat by eliminating organisms that serve important ecological roles such as herbivorous fish that keep alga in-check.”
Florida is also home to the annual Lionfish Challenge, a three-month summer competition that brought in “a whopping 25,299 lionfish” in 2022, the state says.