Okaloosa County Destin-Fort Walton Beach Tourism and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is celebrating the 5th Annual Lionfish Removal & Awareness Festival on May 20-21 at the Destin Harbor. Lionfish are an invasive species that prey on native fish with no known predators due to their venomous spines. The Emerald Coast Open (ECO) tournament is a key component that helps mitigate the growing lionfish threat in the Gulf of Mexico. “We are fortunate to have a Coastal Resources Division in our community, focused on awareness and reducing the population of this invasive species,” said Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners Chairman Mel Ponder. FWB Life is looking forward to an exciting 2023 tournament!
“The success of this annual event is undeniable,” said Okaloosa County Board Chairman Trey Goodwin. “It not only helps to remove this invasive species, but it brings so many different local industries together within a family-friendly atmosphere that’s accessible to the public. This event grows each year and it could not happen without the hard work of the Coastal Resource Team within our Tourism Development Department.”
The festival includes the Emerald Coast Open Tournament May 19-20. The tournament gives divers the opportunity to compete for prize money totaling nearly $100,000 in categories like most lionfish caught and largest and smallest lionfish. In 2019, ECO had 189 participants and removed 19,167 lionfish throughout the tournament – 14,119 in three days. ECO gave away $48,000 in cash prizes and more than $10,000 in gear prizes. Last year’s tournament was a great success and removed 13,835 lionfish from local waters. The record for the smallest lionfish was broken at 39 millimeters during the main tournament by Alabama Jammin. Diver Tim Shivers collected 604 lionfish during the pre-tournament which surpassed the 2019 record. Tournament weigh-ins will be held behind AJ’s Seafood & Oyster Bar on May 21.
Leading up to the tournament, Emerald Coast Open Restaurant Week offers the public unique lionfish dishes prepared by chefs at local restaurants. Each evening, a local restaurant serves a unique lionfish dish on their menu. The fish caught pre-tournament are provided to the participating restaurants to serve. Each dish is also judged and the winning chef crowned at the end of the week. Last year, the lionfish dishes were scored by a host of judges including a New Yorker Magazine journalist and Chief Scientist for NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries. A scoring system was used and Chef Al Massa took the highest marks with Brotula’s Seafood House & Steamer creation. They presented a Lionfish Pan-Seared dish with Black Forbidden Rice, Melting Zucchini Ribbons, with a Chardonnay Shellfish butter.
The festivities also include Lionfish & Libations on May 20 at the Harbor Walk Village, where you can try samplings of various local brews paired with food provided by participating vendors and learn more about lionfish.
“Emerald Coast Open and the Lionfish Removal & Awareness Day Festival continues to grow and provide awareness of lionfish removal which lessens the threat to our native wildlife in Destin-Fort Walton Beach. Our community sponsors make it possible for us to host an event that is not only educational but an enjoyable experience for families to attend on the Destin Harbor,” said Alex Fogg, Coastal Resource Manager, Destin-Fort Walton Beach.
For official tournament rules, registration and more information, please visit: www.emeraldcoastopen.com.
For more information on Destin-Fort Walton Beach, Florida, please visit: www.destinfwb.com.