Photos from the World’s Biggest Lionfish Derby

by Vern Evans

ON ANY GIVEN weekend this summer, there was a lionfish derby underway somewhere in Florida. As the population of this invasive species has exploded in recent years, so too has interest in targeting the destructive critters. Tournaments begin in late winter and stretch into the fall, with cash and other prizes incentivizing already motivated spearfishermen to remove as many lionfish as they can from vulnerable coral reefs in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. (The species is notorious for its voracious appetite: A single lionfish residing on a reef can reduce native reef fish recruitment by as much as 79 percent.)

The world’s largest lionfish derby is the Emerald Coast Open, held in Destin, Florida, in mid-May. This year our photographer tagged along with one of the participating teams, captained by spearfisherman Tim Robinson. At 62, Robinson is a scuba instructor and the owner of ZooKeeper, which makes a sort of underwater creel for safely storing lionfish during dives and sponsors lionfish derbies across the state.

“This is not a problem we’re going to eradicate. Lionfish multiply worse than rabbits,” says Robinson. “A female lionfish lays between 15,000 to 30,000 eggs every four to seven days, year-round. To put that into perspective, [participants] removed roughly 25,000 lionfish during this two-day derby, and a little more than 5,000 in the pre-derby that started in February. And that’s basically the number of eggs that one female lionfish lays once a week.”

“This is not a problem that we’re going to eradicate. Lionfish multiply worse than rabbits.”

—Tim Robinson

Not all the eggs in a clutch survive, of course, but Robinson’s math problem illustrates the sheer scale of the lionfish invasion. While he enjoys the larger mission of lionfish management, Robinson spends his weekend spearfishing for another reason.

“The truth is that we love it. We love spearing lionfish,” says Robinson. “It’s the thrill of the hunt. They’re not just out swimming around freely. In most cases, you have to hunt for them. It’s fun to come up with a dozen lionfish or a full ZooKeeper. I’ve had days when I couldn’t get any more lionfish in my ZooKeeper. It’s just a great feeling. So yes, we want to be part of the cause [to reduce lionfish] and do our part. But we really, truly love it. It’s just in our blood.”

This story first ran on July 5, 2023.

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