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Lionfish Tournament Takes Aim At Invasive Species

  A monthlong tournament has just kicked off to see who can take the most lionfish out of Northeast Florida waters. State wildlife officials are promoting similar tournaments around the state to thin out the invasive species’ numbers.

Divers at Jacksonville’s Mudville Grille signed up last week to prey on the spiny predator.

Benjamin Messinese, an Atlantic Beach resident, says you don’t have to think to catch a lionfish.

“They’re all over the place. They’re not skittish, they’re not scared,” Messiese said. “They sit still. They’re right there in front of you.”

The divers use a Hawaiian sling to catch the lionfish.

The Hawaiian sling is a spear, that looks more like Neptune’s trident — with five razor-sharp barbs instead of three, and a big rubber band on the other end. Jacksonville’s Joe Kistel says, for this crowd, it’s the weapon of choice.

Kistel said, “You pull it back, get close to the lionfish, let it go and it’s a done deal.”

Northeast Florida Lionfish Blast organizer Donnie Trauthwein lays down the rules. He hopes the tournament can pull 3,000 lionfish out of the Northeast Florida ecosystem. The pest is native to the South Pacific. It first showed up in the waters off Miami in 1985 and multiplied.

Trauthwein said, “They eat voraciously. They reproduce [a lot. They] make bunny rabbits blush. They can lay 30,000 eggs once a week.”

Now they compete with red snapper, grouper and flounder for resources — threatening Florida’s fisheries and economy.

But not if Jacksonville’s Brandon Traub gets his way.

He said, “The key to spearing the biggest lionfish is probably just gettin’ in the water and finding ‘em, and shooting ‘em.”

Peter Haden is an award-winning investigative reporter and photographer currently working with The Center for Investigative Reporting. His stories are featured in media outlets around the world including NPR, CNN en Español, ECTV Ukraine, USA Today, Qatar Gulf Times, and the Malaysia Star.