This year’s Emerald Coast Open (ECO), the world’s largest lionfish tournament, removed a record-breaking 24,699 lionfish, marking a significant step in the fight against the invasive species that poses a major threat to native marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.
Hosted by Destin-Fort Walton Beach and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the tournament took place from May 19-21, 2023 at the world-renowned HarborWalk Village and AJ’s Seafood and Oyster Bar. Scuba divers from all over came together to combat the lionfish threat, surpassing last year’s removal of 13,835 lionfish.
The lionfish, known for their venomous spines and destructive impact on native marine species, have become a formidable problem in the Gulf. The tournament offered divers a chance to aid in their removal while competing for nearly $125,000 in prize money in categories such as “most lionfish caught” and “largest and smallest lionfish.”
- The team “Deepwater Mafia 1” clinched the title again for the most lionfish caught, bringing in 2,898 of the venomous creatures. Teams “Under Pressure” and “In the Clouds” followed closely, with 2,741 and 1,569 lionfish respectively.
- In the size categories, “Dibs On Bottom” caught the largest lionfish, measuring a record-breaking 456mm (17.95 inches), while “Down N Out” snagged the smallest at 64mm (3.03 inches).
The lionfish guessing game returned this year, inviting participants aged 18 and older to estimate the total number of lionfish to be captured during the main event. After 715 total guesses, Rachelle Graves emerged victorious with an astonishingly close estimate of 19,461, winning the $1,000 prize.
The pre-tournament phase, which kicked off ahead of the main event, was dominated by Tim Shivers of DWM 1, who removed a whopping 1,056 lionfish.
Alex Fogg, Okaloosa’s Coastal Resource Manager, said that divers were able to start at first light on Friday and had to be done with diving by last light that day. The same thing happened again on Saturday. And while it made for a whirlwind of fish measuring, Fogg says it could not have been done without all the volunteers noting the rising lionfish numbers.
- “We’ve noticed over the last six months that there’s been an increase in the numbers of lionfish on our local reefs,” he explained. “So we suspected that if the weather cooperated, we were going to see a lot of fish hit the docks.”
Leading up to the tournament was the Lionfish Restaurant Week, where local restaurants showcased lionfish in unique dishes. La Paz in Destin emerged as the Restaurant Week winner, impressing both customers and judges with their innovative lionfish-infused Mexican dishes and commitment to education about the lionfish invasion.
- “The judges noted that their waiters and staff were on point with their education. The judges even said there was a band there that was playing and in between each song the singer was spouting out Lionfish facts,” said Fogg.
The tournament concluded with new records set for the largest lionfish caught.
“The largest lionfish that had ever been caught in the Emerald Coast Open was 440 millimeters, and then this year, on the first day, that record was broken and then it got broken another four times throughout the duration of the event,” Fogg reported.
Prior to this year, the Emerald Coast Open has removed 47,890 lionfish since the inaugural year (2019).
After a record-breaking weekend, Fogg expressed optimism for future tournaments, saying, “It’s going to be really hard to beat the success of this year’s Emerald Coast Open, but then again, I said the same thing in 2019 and we beat those numbers pretty handedly this year.
- He added, “at the end of the day, the weather, the community sponsors, the participants, and the volunteers is what makes this whole thing work. We love to see the tons (literally) of lionfish out of the water and help our reefs before we go into the season and the heavy fishing season.”
|Deepwater Mafia 1
|In the Clouds
|Down N Out
|Dibs On Bottom
|In the Clouds
|Down and Out
|In The Clouds
|Dibs On Bottom
Pre Tournament Top 3: