DESTIN, Fla. (WKRG) — Navarre, Destin and the Florida Keys have a bit more to brag about. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee (FWC) named this year’s winners of the Lionfish Challenge.
- Recreational Category
- First place Lionfish King: Brooks Feeser, Palm Beach County, 1,632 removed.
- Second place: Carl Antonik, Santa Rosa County, 1,582 removed.
- Third place: Christina Raber-Jehn, Palm Beach County, 1,475 removed.
- Commercial Category
- First place Commercial Champion: Rachel Bowman, Monroe County, 730 pounds removed.
- Second place: Paul DeCuir, Escambia County, 725 pounds removed.
- Third place: Alex Fogg, Okaloosa County, 657 pounds removed.
FWC said this year was the most active year in terms of participation. 471 people registered and 185 people submitted fish. More than 21,000 lionfish were removed during the 3-month program.
Okaloosa County diver Alex Fogg says lionfish hunting is year-round, but the challenge starts right after the festival in Destin in May.
“It’s free to enter, so you just have to go online, go to their website and enter a little bit about where you live and who you are and they provide more information about where you need to check in your fish and where you need to send trip tickets to enter the tournament.”Alex Fogg, Avid Lionfish hunter
This was Rachel Bowman’s first time winning the yearly challenge in the commercial category. Bowman spear fishes down in the Florida keys and says the hunt is different than at the Nortwhest Florida reefs.
“Up in the panhandle when you’re hunting lionfish you are mostly on artificials,” said Bowman. “You drop on a chicken coop or a tractor or an airplane, you get those fish and you’re done.”
Bowman lives at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary where the coral reefs are natural. She says a dive is about 30 to 45 minutes of searching the edge of a reef looking for fish.
“The analogy we use is they are going into the mall and getting the change out of the fountain, in the middle of the mall, and I am in the parking lot looking under cars.”Rachel Bowman, Frist Place Lionfish Hunter
Divers have been hunting the invasive species for years. The FWC created the challenge in 2016 as an added incentive.
“We’re so lucky the State of Florida is incentivizing us to do something we would all probably do anyways,” said Bowman. “We would all still go scuba diving, we would all still hunt fish. The State of Florida is giving us extra and added reasons to do something we all love.”
While commercial hunters are listed in pounds, Fogg says he counts each fish at half a pound or so, putting his total for the summer at more than 1,300 fish. Bowman was more than 1,400.
Both divers say the fish population was lower this year than most.
“This year I was able to land 657 pounds which sounds like a lot of fish. But in the whole scheme of things compared to the past it’s really not that much,” said Fogg. “In years past the winner’s, the top three, would be well over 1,000 pounds usually 2,000 or 3,000 pounds during that summer season.”
“The lionfish population has seen a decline over the years, there’s a lot of theories as to why that is. There’s potentially disease, there’s potential that humans are actually making a dent. The exact reason has not been determined yet but it is a good thing for the environment.”Alex Fogg, Avid Lionfish Hunter
“We can’t look at the drop in numbers and think ok, we’re done, let’ go hunt snapper or grouper now,” said Bowman. “We can’t get comfortable, we can’t get complacent, we have to just get out there and keep doing it.”
First-place winners Bowman and Feeser received a lionfish trophy, $150 for SCUBA air fills, an HP 100 SCUBA cylinder, and will be featured in the 2021 Saltwater Regulations publication and in the FWC Lionfish Hall of Fame.
To find out more about the program, click here.
You can follow along with all of the lionfish hunts on the FWC Reef Rangers page.