Spear fisherman targets lionfish, the Gulf’s most nefarious tenant
By Michelle Farnham
Hook and Trigger Magazine
Stalking the depths of the ocean blue lurks a nearly invincible predator: venomous, rapidly multiplying, and seemingly hell-bent on destruction.
Bearing the spines of an untouchable warrior, the lionfish has been wreaking havoc on the Gulf of Mexico since it was inadvertently introduced to the underwater biome in the 1980s. With no natural predator, a population that continues to skyrocket out of control (one female can spawn 27,000 to 100,000 eggs every 2.5 days), and a voracious appetite, oceankind relies on one brave species to eradicate this unwelcome inhabitant.
Enter lionfish hunters like Tristan Lennard, a Crestview native who has made the sport of deep-sea spear fishing into a conservation mission. Lennard grew up on the water, offshore fishing with his dad for as long as he can remember. He became SCUBA-certified in high school, and began diving as an amateur offshore underwater videographer.
“I dove anything from shipwrecks to Super Pyramids to live bottom ledges to barges,” Lennard said. “As I became more advanced, I sought out integrating Hawaiian slings and spear-gunning into my packing list.”
He tends to dive a few miles offshore, going to depths of 70 to 80 feet. There he encounters the likes of snapper, triggerfish, grouper – sometimes even slipper lobsters. But there was one species that always stood out the most: the loathsome lionfish.
“Unlike most fish, the lionfish was slow-moving, easy to spear, and just plain bizarre-looking,” he admitted. “Upon realizing what lionfish were and their negative biological impacts, I started to target them quite aggressively.”
As the lionfish is an invasive species, there is no season, no bag limit, and no license required, meaning Lennard and his fellow diving enthusiasts can hunt to their hearts’ content.
Armed with a trident spear tip attached to his 3-foot Hawaiian sling and a ZooKeeper (a harvesting container that protects divers from the fish’s venomous spines), Lennard found lionfish so plentiful and easy to catch, he would often spend his entire 30-minute dive focused solely on the breed.
“I pull forward the sling with my thumb until my fingers reached the top of the Hawaiian sling. This action loads the spear in order to engage your fish,” he demonstrated. “Upon a few inches of the target, I would release my fingers from the front end of the spear. This would propel the spear forward in order to penetrate the lionfish.”
If the spear hits pay dirt, Lennard shoves the tip into the ZooKeeper trap without touching the fish, cramming in as many as 20 per dive.
“With only two to three dives a day, it’s important to make every dive count,” he said. “I believe sports fishermen and divers of all experience levels should participate in this conservation effort because it is mutually beneficial for both the marine environment and the diver.”
Making things intere$ting
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hosts the Lionfish Challenge each summer, encouraging a statewide extermination. With the tagline “Be the predator,” recreational entrants have to produce at least 25 specimens to get in the game, while their commercial counterparts must submit a minimum 25-pound haul. Hunters compete for cash, dive gear, and the coveted Lionfish King/Queen trophy.
Over in Destin, the Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament coincides with the Lionfish Festival, held along HarborWalk Village each May. For the 2019 installment, Team Florida Man brought home the $10,000 first place prize with a staggering 2,241 lionfish. In total, 19,167 of the spiny brutes were pulled from the Gulf. Prizes are awarded for the six largest fish, the six smallest fish, and the six largest overall hauls.
Lennard entered his first ECOLT as part of the Toes in the Sand team, but admitted they didn’t have their best showing.
“We only logged three lionfish for the entire 6-dive, 3-day tourney. Not every day is glamorous being a spearfisherman. This was a great learning experience for my team for future tournaments,” he said.
Lennard pointed out that many of the top contenders utilized more resources than his team had available, including multiple boats, man-made spots, and trimix dives (combining oxygen, nitrogen, and helium to maximize dive times) – all fair methods – but the advantage was obvious. Personally, he prefers to be on the hunt in late June or early July, when the warmer waters bring the lionfish closer to Destin.
The 2020 Emerald Coast Open is slated for May 14 to 17 in Destin, while the 2019 Lionfish Challenge runs through Labor Day.
To the victor go the spoils
So what does Lennard do with his goldmine following a normal dive? He sets the table and fires up the stove – but not before breaking out his protective gloves.
“Cleaning the lionfish can be initially difficult for novices,” he acknowledged. “It’s very important to avoid contact with the venomous spines that protrude out the top and bottom sides of the fish. I’ve been stung many times and it’s not any worse than a really uncomfortable jellyfish sting.”
Lennard said they generally fry the seafood like you would any snapper or grouper, preferring very light breading.
“We also broil it with oil and butter. It cooks similar to any other white fleshy fish. Just bear in mind that since lionfish are a smaller-sized species; it may take many fillets to make a meal for a single person.”
A senior in the Army ROTC program at the University of South Florida, Lennard is majoring in environmental science and policy, with a minor in military science. Following graduation and his time in the Army, he hopes to become a law enforcement officer with the FWC.
Carry on, brave soldier. Our oceans are counting on you.