A team of spearfishermen just set a new record—and helped reef ecosystems in the Florida Keys in the process. Team Forever Young, which is comprised of Captain Tony Young, owner of Forever Young Spearfishing, Luke Rankin, Jason Vogan, and Jeffery Tharp, speared 426 invasive lionfish in just one day. The impressive haul was part of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation’s (REEF) 2022 Earth Day Lionfish Derby, which took place on Saturday, April 23 in Monroe County, Florida.

“Everything came together really well for this tournament,” Young tells F&S. “We basically had one full day from sunup to sundown to fish. We actually removed a large number of fish off of our regular reef sites in the evening. They were all breeding pairs of lionfish, so it was cool to remove those ones.”

Team Forever Young is something of a powerhouse at the REEF lionfish derbies. Last fall, the team set a derby record by removing 564 in two days. This time, they nearly matched that total—and they did it in just one day. The 426 lionfish removed last Saturday is a single-day REEF derby record and smashed the previous record by nearly double. The previous single-day record was 269 and was set by Team Forever Young last year. REEF has been hosting local lionfish derbies in Monroe County waters since 2013.

“I put a lot of time into planning the dives—from the mixes of the gas that we’re breathing to the locations,” says Young. His team typically focuses on thoroughly picking lionfish off of good structure, where they like to hide during the day. “We’re kind of like a well-oiled machine on the boat. And we’re all professional divers running charters every day.”

men celebrate lionfish derby with certificates
More than 30,000 lionfish have been removed at REEF derbies over the years. REEF

Young and his fellow teammates use rubber-band-powered pole spears to efficiently collect the invasive fish. While a number of teams signed up for the REEF Earth Day Lionfish Derby, Team Forever Young was the only one to actually weigh in fish. Other teams were deterred by poor weather forecasts, which turned out to be overblown. “We thought it was going to be a very rough day on the water and were prepared for that, but it turned out to be one of the most beautiful days we’ve had in quite a while,” says Young.

With Team Forever Young’s contribution, spearfishermen at REEF derbies have removed more than 30,000 invasive lionfish from the reefs off Florida. Lionfish are an invasive species native to the Indo-Pacific that have become abundant in the coastal waters of the southeast U.S. in recent years. They outcompete and prey on native species for food; they reproduce year-round; and they have no natural predators. Coordinated removal efforts are crucial to limiting the impact of the invasive species. Young notes that REEF—and the organization’s derbies—have done an important service by raising awareness of the problem.

“REEF Lionfish Derbies educate the public about the impacts of invasive species, serve as an opportunity for scientists to gather lionfish data, and promote a consumer market for lionfish,” says Amy Lee, REEF Engagement and Communications Manager. “Studies have shown that regular lionfish removals through events like derbies can significantly reduce lionfish populations at the local scale and encourage communities to stay involved in efforts to control and manage lionfish.”

lionfish tasting
Lionfish meat is white and flaky. REEF

Team Forever Young donated 20 percent of its haul to REEF, which hosts lionfish tastings at the derby. The fish is considered great table fare. The remaining 80 percent of the fish was sold to local restaurants. Young and his teammates also occasionally work with scientists to provide lionfish for testing. And recently, a company based out of New York has begun buying lionfish skins from Young, which it tans and ships to Italy to be incorporated into high-end sneakers.

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Despite the record number of lionfish removed at last weekend’s derby, Young emphasizes that spearfishermen have reduced lionfish populations in the area. “I don’t want people to get misled by the number of fish that we were able to get,” he says. “We are making an impact. We see that in the fact that lionfish numbers are going down. Part of the reason that we do get a lot of fish is that we’ve gotten pretty dialed in over time. A lot of effort goes into getting these fish.”