Underwater Fishing Tournament Targets Invasive Fish Species

May 3, 2013

Credit Florida International University SCUBA Cats Club

An underwater fishing tournament takes place later this month.  Divers are hoping to snag as many non-native, invasive lionfish as they can for a chance at winning some prize money.


An unusual underwater fishing tournament is taking place at the coast at the end of the month.  The non-profits Eastern Carolina Artificial Reef Association and Carteret Catch are sponsoring the first ever “If you can’t beat em,’ eat em’”spear fishing tournament.  Janelle Flemming is a researcher at the University of North Carolina’s Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City and also a coordinator of the event.  She says tournament goers will see three different Marine species.

“There’s the lionfish division, there’s the lobster division, and there’s the miscellaneous edible fish division.  And it’s basically a way to inform the public about the invasive lionfish species and to collect lionfish to bring it to the local restaurants that are around here.”

Lionfish are originally from the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, the west and central Pacific Ocean, and the seas connecting the two in the general area of Indonesia.  How the destructive lionfish ended up here in eastern North Carolina remains a mystery.  Flemming says the beautiful but poisonous fish compete with native species for food and habitat.

“These fish are veracious eaters. There is no natural predators for them in the Atlantic Ocean.  So they can reproduce, once they reach sexual maturity, they can lay about 30 eggs every four days and they will eat all the juvenile grouper and the juvenile crustaceans and all of the juveniles that all of our commercial fishing people like to collect and bring in to our restaurant.”

Lionfish started becoming a noticeable problem off the coast of North Carolina more than a decade ago.  Since then, Flemming says lionfish populations have exploded.  Density ranges between 200 and 500 per 10,000 square meters.  By comparison, grouper usually range between 78 and 300 fish for the same area.  Not only are lionfish deadly for native fish species, they are also hard to catch.

“They hang out at the bottom and like to hide underneath substrate so if it’s a rock or a wreck.  So if you use a hook and a line, you’re not going to be able to catch them.”

During the tournament, scuba divers and freedivers will use spears to catch the lionfish.  They’ll be fishing at a spot that’s known for having an abundance of lionfish, the shipwreck site of the Naeco, a tanker that was torpedoed more than 40 miles off the coast in 1942.  I traveled from Beaufort with a group of divers In October 2009 to the Naeco for one of the first Lionfish Roundups.

"actually caught three, one of them got away.  He was smart.  He stuck his quills thru the bag so I couldn’t get him down inside the bag.”

When hunting lionfish, one has to be careful of their poisonous spines.  On that trip, a diver came up out of the water cradling his hand later explaining he was stung twice trying to guide a lionfish into a collection bag.

“What does it feel like?  It feels like a very bad bee sting.”

10 divers were part of that lionfish roundup.  They weren’t spearing the lionfish on that particular day.  Instead, divers were collecting live specimens to be used for research.  NOAA Biologist Dave Sorino explained.

"we’re trying to collect as many live lionfish as we can so we can bring them back to the lab and get them to release eggs and we’ll try to fertilize those eggs and rear the larvae. There’s very little known about the early stages of the lionfish, it has not been well described.  So we’re going to try to grow them up through their larvae stage and describe that.”

A total of 45 live lionfish – and 16 egg masses were collected during the 2009 Lionfish Roundup.  Sorino said unfortunately none of the lionfish eggs hatched, probably due to the stress of being caught.  Keeping the fish alive for research isn’t something they’ll be concerned with during the “If you cant beat em,’ eat em’” tournament at the end of May because the lionfish caught during the 10 day event will be prepared and eaten.  You have to be careful of their venomous spines, but lionfish taste pretty good.

“Its white meat, very very tender.  To me, it taste a lot like flounder.  But I just love it. It’s very very tasty.”

The lionfish speared during the tournament will be donated to a local restaurant.  But not before scientists take meticulous notes on which site the lionfish were caught, the diver’s depth and length of dive, as well as an estimate of the number of lionfish at each diving site.  Event Coordinator Janelle Flemming says the data will help them track lionfish populations.

 “What we hope to do is keep the numbers down so that our native population of fishes whether its groupers or flounders or even the crustaceans can actually grow in those certain areas. So kind of creating a marine reserve site at different areas.”

The tournament runs from Friday May 31st thru Sunday, June 9th in Beaufort.  Proceeds from the 20 dollar registration fee will benefit the non-profits Carteret Catch and Eastern Carolina Artificial Reef Association. 

“The person that comes away with the most number of lionfish caught on a particular reef or a particular area will collect 500 dollars as part of this tournament.”

If you’d like more information on the “If you cant beat em,’ eat em’” tournament or  you’d like to hear the entire Lionfish Roundup feature,  go to publicradioeast.org and click on the picture of the lionfish.  Jared Brumbaugh, Public Radio East. 

We travel 42 miles off the North Carolina coast for the 2009 Lionfish Roundup.