DESTIN, Fla. (WKRG) — Local non-profit Ocean Strike Team turned three scuba divers in Okaloosa County into lionfish hunters over the weekend.

With classroom instruction, hands-on practice and underwater experience, the divers can now help eradicate the repopulating problem of lionfish in Northwest Florida.

“Lionfish hunting is so much fun and so addicting because it is easy. It’s almost like the whack a mole game,” said Ocean Strike Team founder Brady Hale. “It’s not hard. There doesn’t take a lot of skill you can get in there, and you can shoot a lot of lionfish in a short amount of time without having to go through months and months of training.”

“If you’re a hunter by nature, and you’re a diver, this kind of combines that hunting and diving underwater and doing something amazing for the environment.”

Brady Hale, Ocean Strike Team founder

Lionfish are an invasive species that eat anything and everything on natural reefs. One female lionfish can produce 3 million eggs every year, about 20,000 eggs every 2-3 days.

WKRG News 5’s Kimber Collins was one of those three divers. With an advanced open water license and Nitrox certification, Kimber took to the Gulf Coast waters Saturday, April 2, killing two lionfish with a pole spear.

First-time hunter Rachel Chapnick said she learned about lionfish growing up in South Florida. Once she moved to Okaloosa County she finally got to take a stab at hunting them, literally.

“I always kind of wanted to do something to tackle it. I love diving, I love fishing. This is a combination of the two,” said Chapnick. “Class last night (Friday, April 1) was a lot about how to go about shooting. We practiced shooting at boxes and then today (Saturday, April 2) it was getting in the water whole new universe and seeing the actual invasive species in person.”

Ocean Strike Team founder Brady Hale first met with the new hunters for a lionfish class hosted by Emerald Coast Scuba in Destin. The course goes over the history of lionfish, how they came to the Florida region, and why they are a problem for fish species that call the Gulf Coast home.

“Lionfish are here in Northwest Florida,” said Hale. “You don’t have to go to South Florida or go to the Caribbean. They are all right here and it’s really important for our native species fish that we remove the lionfish and let those native species grow up enough where they’re not preyed upon by the lionfish.”

Lionfish are voracious eaters,” said Hale. “They eat everything and so we really like our grouper and snapper and so we want them to be able to grow up in the ecosystem to be balanced like it should be.”

Lionfish hunting is a big topic every spring with the Emerald Coast Open, a two-day lionfish hunting tournament.

“Last year we had almost 20,000 lionfish get pulled out over the span of the tournament,” said Hale. “So unfortunately they’re gonna be back, and so we need to get back out there and hunt again.”

Shark Quest dive shop out of Gulf Breeze took the group by boat to the two dive sites. Dive Master Nick Jones said he loves watching people hunt lionfish for the first time.

“The look on their face when they shoot their first fish, it’s one of my favorite things to see,” said Jones. “Give it a try. I mean, it’s not a hard thing to do at all. Come out on a boat that has some experienced divers and just watch what they do and you know most of the time, I’ll handle polespear over and say hey give it a try.”

How to become a hunter

“So the steps to hunt lionfish is very easy. First we go classroom and so we’ll talk through some things. We’ll teach you how to use the pole spear safely. Make sure that you’re confident in what you’re doing. 

We also give you the reasons why it is important to get the lionfish out of the water. 

From there we move onto the boat and we actually go out and we hunt lionfish. We’re going to get with you in the water. We’re going to put you on the lionfish. We’re going to show you how to hunt, and we’ll be right there in the water with you, giving you tips and techniques.

So if you miss a fish, we’re going to show you how to do better next time.”

Brady Hale, Ocean Strike Team founder

A catch and cook day

Divers aboard the Shark Quest dive boat Saturday snagged 14 lionfish in total. Those fish were taken to The Island Hotel on Okaloosa Island and prepared by Executive Chef Scott Nelson.

Chef Nelson made a bronzed lionfish dish over rice and veggies and named it the ‘Lion King.’

But wait… aren’t lionfish dangerous?

“So lots of people think that lionfish are poisonous, when in fact they’re venomous, and that’s a little bit different. So poisonous if you ingest it, it can hurt you. With venomous, If you get stuck it can hurt you, so that’s what we have to worry about not getting stuck. 

It’s very easy once you fillet the fish. It’s a white, flaky meat. It’s absolutely amazing.”

Brady Hale, Ocean Strike Team founder

Ways to support Ocean Strike Team

Become a member of the non-profit for $35 a year. The money goes towards boat charters and events for scuba divers around the region.

Attend the Into the Blue Gala in Pensacola on April 22. All proceeds from the event will go to Ocean Strike Team.

Links to contacts:

Ocean Strike Team

Shark Quest Dive Shop

Emerald Coast Scuba

Lionfish events coming up

Emerald Coast Open Pre Tournament (Feb 1- May 12)

Emerald Coast Open (May 13 & 14)

Lionfish Challenge (May 20- Sept. 6)