09/11/2015 04:33 pm ET

Florida Lionfish Derby Seeks To Curb Spread Of Invasive Species

It's not just for fun: Jobs and the environment are on the line.

A venomous kind of fish that wildlife officials consider among the worst invasive species in the Gulf of Mexico faces a day of reckoning at the hands of local spear-fishers.

On Sept. 12 and 13, 145 spear-fishers are expected to plunge into the waters near St. Petersburg, Florida, for what's being called the "Lionfish Safari." It is the 35th such tournament held in the state this year, and the largest derby ever that specifically targets lionfish, according to WTSP. 

Lionfish are considered one of the most aggressively invasive species on the planet.
Stephen Frink via Getty Images
Lionfish are considered one of the most aggressively invasive species on the planet.

Florida and other states on the Gulf of Mexico hold regular fishing tournaments to help curb the spread of lionfish. Expert fishers and trained volunteers removed hundreds of them from Texas waters in a similar derby earlier this week.

Florida state fish and wildlife officials estimate there are millions of lionfish in the gulf. The animal's lack of predators and insatiable appetite for other fish make it a serious threat. In addition to impacting thousands of jobs in the fishing industry, if the lionfish eat all the fish in a reef that feed on algae, it could spur algal blooms, The Associated Press notes.

"They consume a lot of fish. We've found as many as 60 prey items in the stomach of one lionfish, so they really are voracious eaters," Florida Wildlife Commission environmental specialist Alan Peirce told WTSP.

First spotted in Florida in the 1990s, the lionfish is native to the Indo-Pacific, and has been called one of the most aggressively invasive species on the planet. Females lay up to 2 million eggs over the course of a lifetime, and their venomous spines are incredibly effective at keeping predators at bay.

It's not totally clear how the fish were first introduced to gulf waters, but experts hypothesize that the outbreak may be traceable to six lionfish that escaped from an beachside aquarium when it was destroyed during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Curtailing the spread of lionfish is a year-round commitment. The Florida Wildlife Commission even has a program where they train volunteers to "adopt a reef" and keep it free of lionfish.

There's also been an effort to create a market for lionfish meat. Although the fish has venomous spines, when properly cleaned, it's fine to eat. The meat itself contains no venom.

But even with dozens of derbies a year and volunteers monitoring reefs, Peirce said it may be impossible to keep the fish in check.

"The hope is that we'll be able to control them at localized spots, maybe not eradicate them completely," Pearce said.