20190817 Lionfish Derby | Lionfish Tasting

The similarity to the Redneck Fishing Tournament–a grassroots organized event aimed at merging sport fishing with environmental causes–was too good to pass up. Marine conservationists, such as Reef.org and Coastal Watch Alliance, have partnered with dive shops throughout Florida to encourage scuba divers to compete in lionfish derbies. Scuba diving and spearing the lionfish is the standard, and most effective manner to remove the species from the water. But it's time intensive, and costly, since scuba diving itself is a niche activity with time limitations of how long a diver can stay underwater. 

The State of Florida has encouraged the removal of lionfish through derbies as well as an online raffle and harvesting competition. Divers register as recreational or commercial harvesters and confirm the statistics of size and number of fish by simply taking a photo of the catch with the fish on display and upload to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's website. Cash prizes and sponsored-donations of gear create tiers that attract more participation. And people in Florida generally like to kill things, probably because life thrives so easily in this climate.

The derby idea is pretty simple: cash prizes for the most lionfish and/or the largest lionfish, as well as the smallest lionfish. In Pompano, the cash prize is divided by those who have paid to ride the chartered boat owned by South Florida Diving Headquarters, and those who own or operate a private boat. Strangely, this blatant conflict of interest, i.e. the use of tax-payer funds to divert profit to a local company is tolerated. The rules stipulate that only fish caught during the period of 4am-4pm on the day of the event are eligible to be counted, and the fish must be in its entirety to count as a fish. At least one team member must attend the educational event held on the Friday before the event. 

On the boat, there were about six or seven teams made of pairs. Henry, whom I met on the Aqua Zoo and had convinced to team up to form MI-NY. No introductions, no nametags, no co-mingling. These people came to win. 

Henry and I chatting with a photographer from Shipwreck Park and the dive master, Dave, but there was very little friendly chit-chat, compared to the scheduled dives before the competition. I couldn't tell if the reluctance of the other teams to mingle was because Henry and I were outsiders or because everyone was too focused on getting in the mood to hunt. The location of the dive was not disclosed prior to departure, but we were told we’d head to an artificial reef off Commercial Street in Lauderdale By-the-Sea, but we learned on the approach that several private boats had already anchored up there so we headed for a reef instead.

When the boat finally came to a halt, teams started jumping into the water, with little or no discussion as to who would go in first or whether there was an advantage in going in first or last. To add to the confusion, there were two guys who were just diving for fun. 

Henry and I were last into the water and instructed that, if we came to the end of the reef, we should continue swimming north a few minutes and we would arrive at the next reef. We hot dropped down 45 feet onto the center of the field and soon saw another team scanning for lionfish. A nursery shark passed and several other fishes, but no Pterois. We had discussed taking turns spearing; this round was Henry’s chance, we had imagined each successful spear throw handing over a lionfish to me and I handing him the second spear, then I would put the bounty in the Lionfish Tamer. That was how it was supposed to happen, but the only problem was that we didn't see any lionfish. I followed Henry as he searched over the landscape when we came to the end of the reef and swam north, over the featureless sand. Five minutes. Ten minutes. I attempted to direct us in the correct direction by using my recently acquired compass skills, but by the time I pulled us north we had gone so far west as to just swim parallel with the reef. I realized we would run out of air before we found any other lifeforms. A boat passed over head as we were ascending, and it sounded like a distant helicopter, almost hitting our dive flag on the surface.

The lost opportunity wasn't that detrimental. Few lionfish were brought up. One team pulled up two fish and a team in the back poured eight fish into an ice chest. I realized that their team appeared to be made of more than four people. The organizers had not instructed bringing coolers for the catch. One guy had cooler for lobsters but of the 14 plus people, supposedly in pairs, meaning seven teams, there were three coolers on the boat. Something smelled fishy. 

On the second dive I was hunting while Henry recorded. The new reef appeared equally desolate but by half my tank, I spotted a lionfish on the roof of a coral ledge. I moved slowly and brought the spear into position of less than a foot away, nearing it as I awaited any sign of movement before letting the Hawaiian slingshot fly. I handed the spear to Henry and took the new spear. What I learned was the description of where to find these fish was misleading. I had been told that Pterois volitans congregated at the edge of coral, but had I been told they were essentially seabats, nestled upside down on the roof of the coral overhangs, we would have found them earlier. Biologically it makes sense, since the coloration of the fish is dark purple and maroon, which appears like coral shaded from sunlight. Now, I find them at every ledge, but I got greedy. Each fish was in a pair, and I would locate them and waive Henry to bring the second spear, so I could get both, one in each hand, but the couple drifted into the coral maze, away from site or reach. This happened three times and I soon realized I was down to 500 psi and we had to surface.

At the end of the tournament, we tied for second on the chartered boat, but the winners had caught around 14 fish. At the docks we had our fish counted and measured. I stayed after to clip some venomous spines and noticed that the winning team had submitted their fish much later than everyone else on the boat. 

At the awards ceremony, the winning team on the charter boat not only had more fish than anyone saw them catch but their team included people who weren't even on the boat. A blonde with thick thighs and big, fake tits was on their team; the kind of person you can't miss in a sport that's predominantly middle-aged white men floating in the middle of nowhere. I knew she wasn’t on our boat. Their team had purportedly found and speared thirty fish. Where they came up with the other fish was either they had jumped on a second boat after the first, or they had looked multiple team catches together. 

Each landed fish was awarded a ticket that was entered into a raffle of prizes donated by the sponsors. The winning team won 8 prizes in a row, which was statistically improbable, but the fact that each winning ticket that was called occurred in the numerical order of the ticket confirmed my suspicion that this raffle, and probably the entire tournament, was rigged. I have never seen such blatant corruption and for so little money. It was pitiful. The winners took all of the sponsored prizes, even though their 30 tickets were a small fraction of the 600 fish caught and 600 raffle tickets.