FLORIDA KEYS — Divers planning trips to enjoy the Florida Keys’ living coral barrier reef also can help protect it and give back to the environment by capturing and removing non-native lionfish from Keys waters while vacationing.

A partnership forged between the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Reef Environmental Education Foundation and the dive community has created hands-on, focused opportunities for Keys visitors who enjoy the island chain’s natural resources to take action and remove lionfish. The popular aquarium fish is believed to have been introduced to Florida waters during the 1980s.

REEF runs workshops educating divers about safe collection and removal techniques, and sponsors monthly contests open to individuals and businesses that award prizes to those that catch the most lionfish.

There is no season for capturing lionfish. They can be caught anytime, anywhere and at any size.

The Indo-Pacific red lionfish consumes a wide variety of prey such as invertebrates, juvenile grouper and snapper that commercial fishermen rely on. The voracious invaders, whose population is growing rapidly in Atlantic waters, outcompete native fish for food and territory. Lionfish have no natural reef predators except humans.

Divers can learn how to collect, clean and fillet this delicious fish whose delicate white meat is likened to snapper, grouper and hogfish. Although lionfish are equipped with venomous spines that are removed before cooking, the flesh has no poison.

Several Keys restaurants have adopted an “eat them to beat them” campaign and feature lionfish as a regular tasty menu item.

In addition to monthly contests, REEF also is sponsoring a series of one-day derbies throughout South Florida including an event Saturday, Sept. 8, at Coconuts Restaurant, located at mile marker 100 in Key Largo.

Derby divers can compete for more than $3,000 in prize money while helping preserve Florida Keys habitats and ecosystems.

Teams of up to four people can register. Early registration fee is $100 and includes one pair of puncture-resistant gloves per team. Divers can participate in a derby from their own private vessel or join a professional dive operator’s charter.

Information and registration: www.reef.org/lionfish/derbies or 305-852-0030

Florida Keys diving: www.fla-keys.com/diving

Florida Keys visitor information: www.fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS

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