A fishing tournament in Morehead City this spring aims to reduce the numbers of a destructive invasive species of fish thats hard to catch.
The first annual If you cant beat em, eat em spearfishing tournament aims to educate the public about lionfish, a delicious but rarely eaten invasive species off the North Carolina coast, event coordinator Janelle Fleming said. Lionfish are native to the Pacific Ocean and have become unwanted guests of the coast in recent years.
They have no (known) natural predators, they eat everything and they reach sexual maturity very early, Fleming said. Its a problem. And its a problem for fisherman around here because all those lionfish will eat juvenile groupers and juvenile fish that all the fishermen are trying to catch.
A $500 prize will go to the person who catches the most lionfish. There are smaller $250 prizes for the person who catches the longest lobster and another $250 prize for various other edible fish. The tournament also encourages residents to eat local seafood, Fleming said.
Anyone who is scuba certified and has a Coastal Recreational Fishing License is encouraged to enter, no matter their experience level, Fleming said. May 31, the first day of the tournament, will be a training day.
Estimates of lionfish density off North Carolina vary widely, but range between 200 and 500 lionfish per 10,000 square meters, said Paula Whitfield, a research ecologist for the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science in Beaufort. Thats a lot, Whitfield said. Grouper, a native species, usually range between 78 and 300 fish for the same area.
The lionfish were studying are really equally high or higher than native species in a lot of areas, Whitfield said. Thats really amazing when you think about how long theyve been there.
The first lionfish was recorded off the coast of North Carolina in 2000, and numbers have grown every year, Whitfield said.
Lionfish cant be caught by hook and line or by net, said Barry Nash, a seafood technologist and marketing specialist at the N.C. Sea Grant.
You actually have to go after them individually, and thats not something North Carolina commercial fisheries are equipped to do, Nash said. Its a really good flavored fish. It has commercial applications, if we can just get enough.
Nash said his group has grilled, broiled and baked lionfish like any other white fish, and all three methods cooked the fish well.
Toward the end of the tournament, participants will get to eat some of the lionfish they caught, prepared by chefs at Bistro By the Sea, a Morehead City restaurant.
The event is a joint effort of the restaurant, Discovery Diving, a Beaufort dive shop, the Hampton Inn in Morehead City, the Eastern Carolina Artificial Reef Association and Carteret Catch, a group that encourages local restaurants to use only locally caught fish.
Bistro By the Sea owner Libby Eaton got the idea for the event after taking a vacation to Belize in January. People there told her that lionfish populations were much smaller in areas where hunting tournaments had been held. Eaton said it would not only help reduce the population, but educate people about a tasty fish that many people are afraid of.
They are poisonous, so I think people are afraid to eat them, Eaton said. But once you kill them and clean them, theyre not poisonous anymore.
They remind me a lot of trigger fish, and thats a very popular fish in this area. It used to be a trash fish, too. No one wanted to eat it.