ENGLEWOOD — Divers, boaters, fishermen, lend me your spears! The Englewood Open Spearfishing Tournament is becoming a tradition in the battle against the invasive lionfish, which threatens the local aquatic ecosystem. The second annual tournament will be held Sept. 20- 21 at Stump Pass Grille & Marina, 260 Maryland Ave., Englewood. The tournament is organized by Lynn Wagenseil and Jack Gray to reward those who catch as many lionfish as possible, according to a press release.
Since the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission declared open season on the fish last year, Wagenseil has been asking divers to send her the fish for research. She has received hundreds.
“(People) are finding it in 25 feet of water,” she said. “They’re usually found anywhere in 65 to 300 feet.”
Wagenseil said she sends lionfish given to her from divers to Alex Fogg, who has been researching the fish’s biology and dietary habits at the University of Southern Mississippi as a graduate student.
“We started seeing the fish around the mid-1980s off of the Atlantic (coast) in South Florida,” Fogg said. “They started spreading around the east coast, Caribbean, Bahamas and eventually the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.”
“There’s been studies in its genetics,” he said. “One study suggests that anywhere from eight to 12 lionfish could have started the spread. All native species have been in danger, since lionfish eat anything they can fit into their mouth. In the Bahamas, there was a 70 percent decrease of native species on some reefs where lionfish were present.”
According to the FWC, the lionfish’s native waters are in the South Pacific and Indian oceans.
“The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, (the) Reef Environmental Education Foundation and (the) U.S. Geological Survey have been on top of it,” Fogg said. “There are no predators (here) for the lionfish, even though they have them in their native waters. Native species aren’t necessarily aware of what they are. The best thing divers and fishermen can do is hunt them.”
Capt. Rick Warren, owner of Man Overboard Charters in Englewood, often finds lionfish in his fossil dives. “We did a two-tank dive Friday and we caught one,” he said. “We were just off of Venice by Sharky’s on the Pier.”
Warren participated in last year’s event and caught two before his motor broke down.
Lionfish can sting with their venomous fins, so Warren advises bringing underwater or surgical scissors along on the hunt to remove the fins. From there, they can go onto the dinner table.
“(The) lionfish is a wonderful eating fish, as long as you can fillet them properly, avoiding the poisonous barbs on (the) dorsal fins and other areas,” Wagenseil said. “The taste is equivalent to hogfish, and the meat is white.”
There were 65 participants in last year’s spearfishing tournament, and Wagenseil expects a similar turnout.
The festivities start with the mandatory captain’s meeting at 7 p.m. at Sept. 20.
For more information, call 941-830-1801.