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Jon Hazelbaker of Fort Myers Beach, captain of Team Hammerheaqd Lionfish Eradicators, displays a lionfish he killed off Big Pine Key on Nov. 13 during the Lower Keys Lionfish Derby. Lionfish are not native to Florida and pose a threat to native fish populations, including snapper and grouper.
Jon Hazelbaker of Fort Myers Beach, captain of Team Hammerheaqd Lionfish Eradicators, displays a lionfish he killed off Big Pine Key on Nov. 13 during the Lower Keys Lionfish Derby. Lionfish are not native to Florida and pose a threat to native fish populations, including snapper and grouper. / Valerie Roche/special to news-press.com

If you go

What: Pennekamp Lionfish Roundup. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and the Reef Environmental Education Foundation will host a lionfish roundup to as part of a week-long celebration of the park’s 50th anniversary.

When: Dec. 8, with mandatory captain’s meeting Dec. 7.
Where: John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

Registration fee: $60 for a team of two.

To register: Visit reef.org/lionfish/derbies.

Lionfish sightings
Online reports: nas.er.usgs.gov/sightingreport.aspx
Or call: 1-800-STOP-ANS

Lionfish distribution
For an animated map of the spread of lionfish see:
nas.er.usgs.gov/taxgroup/fish/Lionfishanimation.gif
For a lionfish range map, see:
nas.er.usgs.gov/taxgroup/fish/lionfishdistribution.aspx

Lionfish facts

Scientific name: Pterois volitans

Other common names: Red lionfish, red firefish, turkeyfish, zebrafish

Native distribution: The Indo-Pacific.

Size: Typically, 6 to 12 inches; largest caught on the United States east coast (North Carolina) was 17 inches.

Habitat: Near and offshore coral and rocky reefs to 160 feet, bays, estuaries and harbors.

Diet: Small fish, shrimp, crabs, other lionfish.

Predators: Large lionfish eat small lionfish, but no other predators have been positively identified.

Danger to humans: The lionfish's main defense is the venom on its fins.
Sources: Florida Museum of Natural History and Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce.

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1:10 A.M. — KEYS REEF TRACT — Like underwater dancers, three beautiful and elegant lionfish swayed gracefully in the gentle surge above a small coral head.

Suddenly: Thup-thup — the stainless steel tips of two pole spears skewered two of the nasty non-native predators.

An auspicious start for Team Hammerhead Lionfish Eradicators during the Lower Keys Lionfish Derby Nov. 13; this was the final of three events designed to kill lionfish in the Keys.

“How can anything so attractive be so evil?” team captain Jon “Hammerhead” Hazelbaker of Fort Myers Beach had asked the day before.

“Evil” might be a little anthropomorphic, but lionfish are certainly not good for the western Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico: Studies have shown this ravenous native of the Indo-Pacific is depleting populations of grouper, snapper, crab and shrimp in the Bahamas.

The reconnaissance

When Hazelbaker heard the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Reef Environmental Education Foundation were holding a lionfish derby in the Lower Keys, he put together a team of lionfish assassins consisting of Key West documentary filmmaker Pat Clyne, underwater photographer Valerie Roche of Fort Myers and me.

“I don’t usually get into tournaments because I get stressed out, which takes the fun out of it,” said Hazelbaker, an avid spear fisherman. “But I don’t like what lionfish are doing to our environment. They’re eating up snapper and grouper, so they’re my enemy, and I want to do all I can to eradicate them.”

With cash prizes on the line ($1,000 for the most lionfish, $500 for the biggest and $500 for the smallest lionfish), Hazelbaker and I spent Nov. 11 and 12 scouting patch reefs off Big Pine Key.

We made dives on 11 sites and found lionfish on eight — being sporting types, we resisted the temptation to kill the lionfish we saw, put them on ice and say we shot them during the derby.

The hunt

At 8 a.m. Nov. 13, with the whole team aboard the Hammerhead, Hazelbaker’s 37-foot Pro Cat, we were on our first derby dive site.

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With Clyne tending the boat, Hazelbaker, Roche and I hit the chilly 72-degree water; five minutes later, we saw three lionfish swaying in the surge above a small coral head.
Because lionfish don’t spook when approached by divers, Hazelbaker and I backed off while Roche took photographs.

Then Hazelbaker and I shot two of them.

Oblivious to the danger, the third fish didn’t move, so, with my first kill still on the spear tip, I drilled it .

To protect himself from the lionfish’s 18 venomous spines, Clyne removed fish from spear points with puncture-proof gloves.

But a spine pierced the cloth back of Clyne’s right glove and nicked the second knuckle his middle finger.

“That’s OK: I’m a lefty,” Clyne said. “It’s really not a biggie.”

Within minutes, though, pain had moved to his index finger.

“It’s a numb and thumping pain,” Clyne said. “It’s just weird. Not overwhelming pain, but like how it feels three hours after you get hit by a hammer.”

If the spine had gone deep into a fleshy part of Clyne’s hand, the symptoms would have been far worse — lionfish stings can cause nausea, seizures and loss of consciousness.

Over the next six hours, Team Hammerhead made seven more dives and brought in 14 lionfish — Hazelbaker and I killed five each, and Clyne got four.

The results

Our total was good for third place, behind The Lion Hunters, of Melbourne, with 25, and the 2 Man Wolfpack + 1, with 21.

During a single dive in 160 feet of water on the USS Curb off Key West, Zach Harshbarger killed 11 lionfish, including the biggest (12 inches) and second biggest (10.9 inches).

“Lionfish being such an invasive species, anything I can do, or we as a dive community can do, to control the population is a good thing,” Harshbarger said. “My participation is like, oh, this is fun and a good cause, let’s go catch a few of these dirty buggers.”

The star of the post-derby banquet was fried lionfish, which has a very delicate flavor, much like hogfish — cleaning lionfish without being stung is, of course, the tricky part.
On Tuesday with the derby over and his hand still feeling “as if it had been slammed in a door,” Clyne reflected on his first lionfish derby.

“I thought it was great, just because lionfish are an invasive species that are hurting our fishing industry,” he said. “It’s a fun thing that raised awareness about the problem we’re having down here.

“But it was a fun Band-Aid. They’ve got to come up with something other than people spearing these things. That won’t solve the problem.”

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