Eat ‘um to Beat ‘Um: Collector of specimens at the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo Chris Flook (above) is a leading lionfish consultant. His Eat ‘Um to Beat ‘Um campaign being highlighted through the lionfish tournament aims to control numbers of the species which could wipe out much of our native reef life. *Photos supplied
Eat ‘um to Beat ‘Um: Collector of specimens at the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo Chris Flook (above) is a leading lionfish consultant. His Eat ‘Um to Beat ‘Um campaign being highlighted through the lionfish tournament aims to control numbers of the species which could wipe out much of our native reef life. *Photos supplied
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Few fishing tournaments urge you to kill as many of one species as you can - until now.

A flagship event being held in Bermuda this month will urge locals to grab their spears and clear the seas of invasive lionfish.

And there is no danger of environmentalists reacting in fury - they are the ones organizing the mass cull.

The lionfish population is apparently growing and could prove detrimental to our coral reefs and native sealife.

The fish have already wiped out much of the reef life in the ­Bahamas.

In the past few years, the venomous pests have spread up the Eastern seaboard and through the Caribbean.

The Bahamas have been hit the hardest and people there are now being taught how to safely catch and cook lionfish, which are deemed a delicacy in Asia.

A similar scheme is now being spearheaded in Bermuda by Chris Flook, a leading lionfish researcher and collector of specimens at Bermuda Aquarium Museum and Zoo, and Matthew Strong, the founder of environmental conservation movement Groundswell.

They have organized an all-day, island-wide lionfish tournament on August 23.

The event aims to reduce the population and raise awareness of the problem.

It will also highlight how the fish is a tasty alternative to eating our diminishing grouper and hogfish stocks.

Lionfish are native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans and it is believed they came here as unwanted pets released into the ocean.

The fish - which are eating our juvenile fish - have no known predators here.

Mr. Strong said: "Our grouper and hogfish populations are not in good shape and lionfish is a perfect alternative.

"The idea is that if we can eat a grouper or a hogfish close to extinction then we can do the same with ­lionfish.

"As well as clearing them off the reefs we also want to create a culture for residents to target them as a species.

Prized meat

"We want to show them they are edible and are a prized meat fish in other parts of the world.

"It's the only species that you can target and feel good about because you are helping the environment.

"This is a pest - it's an invasive species and it's going to harm the reefs."

Unlike most fishing tournaments, there is no limitation to the age or number of fish you can catch.

Anyone can compete provided they abide by Bermuda's fishing laws.

Only those with permits can spear a fish while scuba diving or spear fish within a mile of the shore.

There will be permit sessions at the aquarium's ­education room by Mr. Flook on Saturday, August 15, at 11am and on Tuesday, ­August 18, at 7pm.

A lionfish has 13 spines on top of its body and five on the bottom that carry the venom. They are not aggressive by nature and only use venom in defence, usually when they are being handled. Hot water denatures the toxin.

Mr. Flook's advice to those who will not be ­attending the permit sessions is "try not to handle them".

He added: "You can use a net or spear, you can pick them up by the lips if they are dead then just put them straight on ice which will also kill them.

"If someone is stung by one, treat it with as much hot water as you can tolerate.

"It could be worth going to the hospital. The hospital is cataloguing all lionfish stings so they have good data about new animals coming to the island and how to deal with it."

Mr. Flook said he had only heard of one lionfish sting on the island, ­although he has been stung three times after handling them for research.

The sting remains painful for between 40 minutes to an hour.

The tournament was deliberately timed to be ahead of the lobster season, which begins on September 1, so lobster fishermen who will soon be scouring the waters to for trap sites can get involved.

Mr. Flook said: "The lobster fishermen were catching lionfish as by-catch last year.

"The lobster season starts September 1 and that's when the guys take their traps out so they can pick up the fish as well.

"By doing the permit sessions now we are hoping to remove a bunch of fish on the reefs which are spawning, then also to raise awareness that they are a great environmental alternative to grouper and swordfish.

"There is no bag limit, no size limit and you can feel good about catching lots of them."

Depending upon the success of the tournament and the ongoing effort by Groundswell and Mr. Flook's campaign, Eat 'Um to Beat 'Um, it is hoped that restaurateurs will include lionfish on their menus.

Mr. Flook said: "There are a couple of restaurants interested in marketing them but they need the numbers first to be able to start."

Prize-giving

The tournament will finish with a prize giving and barbeque on Pier 41 in Dockyard at 3pm. There will be various categories and prizes for all fish caught.

Mr. Flook will demonstrate how to prepare the fish and top Bermuda chef Chris Malpas will demonstrate how to cook one.

Mr. Strong said: "To say it tastes like a cross between grouper and hogfish doesn't do it justice," said Mr. Strong. "It's sweet like hogfish - a firm fillet.

"Chris Malpas says it's a great fish to cook with and we have been talking with several restaurateurs about getting this on the menu.

"If we can get the restaurateurs to sell it then the commercial fishermen get excited - there's only a certain depth that spear-fishermen can target the species.

"The commercial fishermen are really key to sustaining this."

The tournament will be sponsored by Fantasea Bermuda, where Mr. Strong is an employee.

If anyone sees a lionfish they should catch it or report it to Chris Flook at the Aquarium.

For more information on Groundswell, visit www.reefspect.com