The Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament 2023: Combating an Invasive Species Through Sport

The Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament 2023: Combating an Invasive Species Through Sport

The Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament May 20-21, 2023, at HarborWalk Village in Destin, FL, is gearing up to tackle a pressing ecological challenge while showcasing the power of sport to make a positive impact. This unique tournament, held along the picturesque shores of the Emerald Coast, focuses on combating the invasive lionfish population in the region’s waters.

Lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific region, have become a significant threat to the delicate balance of marine ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico. With their voracious appetite and rapid reproduction, these invasive species pose a grave danger to native marine life. The Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament aims to address this issue by encouraging divers and fishermen to actively hunt and remove lionfish from the waters.

Participants in the tournament will compete to catch the most lionfish, utilizing their skills in underwater navigation, spearfishing, and conservation. Sponsors provide cash and prizes for multiple categories including most caught, largest and smallest lionfish. The event provides an exciting platform for experienced divers and newcomers alike to contribute to the preservation of the marine environment.

Beyond the ecological significance, the tournament also offers a thrilling experience for both participants and spectators. Divers equipped with their spears dive into the depths, searching for lionfish while showcasing their prowess and bravery. The tournament fosters a sense of camaraderie and shared purpose among the participants, creating a community dedicated to the cause of protecting marine ecosystems.

In addition to the competitive aspect, the Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament promotes education and awareness about the invasive species. Participants and attendees have the opportunity to learn about the impact of lionfish on local marine life and explore sustainable solutions to combat the issue at the free Lionfish Awareness Festival from 10:00-5:00 each day. Sign up to volunteer at the event if you want to join the fun. The week prior to the tournament is dedicated to Lionfish restaurant week where local restaurants practice the “eat ‘um to beat ‘um” philosophy and cook up the tasty fish using a variety of innovative recipes. 

The Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament 2023 represents a unique fusion of sport, environmental conservation, and community engagement. By bringing together individuals passionate about marine conservation, this event serves as a powerful catalyst for change and a shining example of how sport can contribute to the preservation of our natural world.  Learn more at

A Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day festival volunteer sorts lionfish for weighing. (L. Tiu)

Written with assistance from ChatGPT

North Florida’s Springs

North Florida’s Springs

Morrison Springs in Walton County is a natural spring ideal for paddling, snorkeling, and diving. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extensio

There is just SO much water in Florida. Besides the tremendous amount of rain and 1,350 miles of coastline and beachfront, there are endless bays, bayous, creeks, rivers, and streams. In this state, it is extraordinarily difficult to live more than a few miles from a body of water. Among the the coolest (literally) types of water bodies in Florida, though, are our springs.  Like brilliant gemstones, the state’s 700+ springs dot the Florida landscape like a strand of sapphires.

While we have springs bubbling up all over northwest Florida in areas where the underground water table meets the surface, larger springs are more common as you move east and south. Some parts of north Florida and most of the peninsula are built on a limestone platform, known by the geological term “karst.” Limestone is composed of calcium carbonate, which has a porous and easily degradable chemical structure. When this barrier is breached, it allows the cold groundwater an opening directly to the surface water—hence a spring. (Fun fact—there are surface water streams that actually disappear into a spring—these are called swallets, operating as the reverse version of a spring!)

The striking blue-green water in Three Sisters Spring is only accessible by kayak or swimming. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

A few of the largest springs in northwest Florida are Vortex, Ponce de Leon, and Morrison Springs, found in Holmes and Walton County. Vortex is a privately operated water park and scuba diving/training facility. It is where the red and white “diver down” flag was invented and has a complex underwater cavern system. Ponce de Leon and Morrison Springs are state and county-run parks with a more natural feel, surrounded by woods and basic infrastructure for access. Morrison will especially wow visitors with its tremendous turquoise coloring.

Crystal clear water in Morrison Springs. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Before a meeting in Crystal River last week, I paddled and snorkeled through the famous Three Sisters Spring. As part of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, it is a popular but highly protected area. Three Sisters is well-known as a manatee gathering place, especially in winter, but during my visit was mostly unoccupied. The color was striking, though. Why do so many of these springs have such brilliant blue and turquoise coloring? The phenomenon is essentially the same as the blue-green Gulf waters in the Panhandle. The reflection of the sky on a sunny day with the backdrop of that pure white sand causes the water to reflect a color that inspired the nickname “The Emerald Coast.” In springs, the white calcium carbonate in limestone breaks down into tiny crystals, mixing with the water and reflecting the vivid shades of blue.

Alexander Springs Creek in Ocala National Forest is overrun with algae. Photo credit: Matt Cohen, UF IFAS

Besides their beauty, clarity, recreational, and wildlife value, springs pump 8 billion gallons of fresh water a day of into Florida ecosystems. Seagrass meadows in many of these springs are lush. Because they are literal windows into the underground aquifer, they are extremely vulnerable to pollution. While many springs have been protected for decades, others were seen as places to dump trash and make it “disappear.” Many have been affected by urban stormwater and agricultural pollution, losing their clarity, reducing dissolved oxygen levels, and prompting massive cleanup and buffer protection zones.

On one of these hot summer days in Florida, take the time to visit our incredible springs. While it may not be the literal “Fountain of Youth,” swimming in a spring is a unique and invigorating experience, and a beautiful way to get off the beaten path. A comprehensive guide to Florida springs, research, and statewide protection initiatives can be found at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s springs website.

Scalloping, Be Safe and Protect Wildlife: Tips from UF/IFAS and Florida Sea Grant Experts

Scalloping, Be Safe and Protect Wildlife: Tips from UF/IFAS and Florida Sea Grant Experts

By Tory Moore, UF/IFAS Communications & Ray Bodrey, UF/IFAS Extension Gulf County

As boaters across the state take to Florida’s coast to scallop, UF/IFAS Extension and Florida Sea Grant agents ask enthusiasts to keep these tips in mind for a safe, fun and sustainable trip.

Scallops are sensitive to environmental changes and, due to their relatively short lifespan, local bay scallop populations are susceptible to periodic collapses. To enjoy recreational scalloping for years to come, it is important that safety and conservation stay top of mind.


Remember, you are not alone out on the water. Other boaters and scallopers, manatees, sea grasses and other wildlife surround you.

In 2020, the leading cause of boating accidents was motorists failing to pay attention to surroundings according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission boating accident report. Florida leads the nation in the number of registered vessels, and it is important for boaters to be aware of others around them to prevent accident, injury or death.

While in the water, be sure to display a dive flag to grab the attention of boaters passing by.

“We often see folks not using diver down flags,” said Ray Bodrey, UF/IFAS Extension and Florida Sea Grant agent said. “Be safe on the water and be sure to place your diver down flag in your scalloping area so boaters know you are there.”


When boating in shallow areas, watch out for seagrass beds. Wildlife, including scallops, depend on seagrass and protecting the grasses from boat anchors and propellers helps to keep populations healthy. Just a couple of minutes of negligence by a boater can cause a decade of impacts to sea grass. Propellor and anchor scars are preventable by following these simple best practices.

“Seagrass scarring is a big issue in Florida,” Bodrey said. “It takes a long time for seagrass to recover from such an injury. Remember, seagrass is a scallop’s best friend. Seagrass provides a health habitat for scallops by providing oxygen and a camouflage from predators.”

To support future scallop populations, return scallops smaller than 1 1/2 inches. Smaller scallops likely have not spawned yet and since their life span is roughly one year, it’s important that each scallop has the opportunity to contribute to the scallop population.

Consider only collecting what you plan to eat. While many people strive to “limit out,” be realistic about how much you will eat and how much you may or may not want to shuck.

Scalloping regulations

Remember, scallop seasons differ by county. Limits are season – and location – specific. Harvesting scallops requires a current Florida recreational saltwater fishing license unless you are on a chartered trip.

It’s important to be aware of the regulations for the area you are scalloping and follow them. Not only are these regulations law, but they are also important for keeping scallop populations healthy for your future enjoyment.

“Many bays in Florida are struggling to maintain a healthy scallop population,” said Bodrey. “Follow all FWC rules and regulations so that we have a recreational scallop harvest season for years to come.”

Cleaning and cooking scallops

On the boat

Upon collection, place scallops on a wet towel on top of ice in a cooler. This prevents spoilage and water from entering their shells. Drain your cooler frequently to keep bacteria growth at a minimum.

Back on land

You will want to shuck your scallops the same day they are caught. If you shuck your scallops on shore, be sure to dispose of the shells or soft tissues properly. Do not dispose of them in high-traffic water areas near shore or in swimming areas.

Before shucking, make sure to wash your hands and shucking utensils.

Remove any traces of the surrounding tissue as possible, you want to only eat the circular white muscle meat. Scallop meat should be stored in the refrigerator and cooked or frozen within 24 hours of catching and shucking. Frozen scallop meat is best enjoyed up to three months.

For limits, regulations and more, visit the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission website devoted to Bay Scallops. For webinars and information from Florida Sea Grant and UF/IFAS Extension directly tied to the site you plan to scallop, visit the Florida Sea Grant scalloping website.


Embrace the Gulf 2020 – marine snails and slugs

Embrace the Gulf 2020 – marine snails and slugs

One of the largest groups of invertebrates in the Gulf are the Mollusk… what many call “seashells”.  Shell collecting has been popular for centuries and, in times past, there were large shows where shells from around the world were traded.  Almost everyone who visits the beach is attracted to, and must take home, a seashell to remind them of the peace beaches give us.  Many are absolutely beautiful, and you wonder how such small simple creatures can create such beauty.

One of the more beautiful shells from the sea – the nautilus.
Photo: Wikipedia

Well, first – not all mollusk are small.  There are cephalopods that rival the size of some sharks and even whales.

Second, many are not that simple either.  Some cephalopods are quite intelligent and have shown they can solve problems to reach their food.

But beautiful they are, and the colors and shapes are controlled by their DNA.  Just amazing.


There are possibly as many as 150,000 different species of mollusks.  These species are divided into 8-9 classes (depending which book you read) but for this series on Embracing the Gulf we will focus on only three.  First up – the snails (Class Gastropoda).


There are an estimated 60,000 – 80,000 species of gastropods, second only to the insects.  They are typically called snails and slugs and are different in that they produce a single coiled shell.  The shell is made of calcium carbonate (limestone) and is excreted from tissue called the mantle.  It covers their body and continues to grow as they do.  The shell coils around a linear piece of shell called the columella.  Most coil to the right, but some to the left – sort of like right and left-handed people.  There is an opening in the shell where the snail can extend much of its body – this is called the aperture – and some species can close this off with a bony plate called an operculum when they are inside.  Some snail shells have a thin extension near the head that protects the siphon – a tube that acts like a snorkel drawing water in and out of the body.

The black siphon can be seen in this crown conch crawling across the sand.
Photo: Franklin County Extension.

They have pretty good eyes and excellent sense of smell.  They possess antenna, which can be tactile or sense chemicals in the water (smelling) to help provide information to a simple brain.


They are slow – everyone knowns this – but they really don’t care.  Their thick calcium carbonate shells protect them from most predators in the sea… but not all.


Their cousins the slugs either lack the shell completely, or they have a remnant of it internally.  You would think “what is the point of an internal shell?” – good question.  But the slugs have another defense – they are poisonous.  Venomous and poisonous are two different things.  Being poisonous means you have a form of toxin within your body tissue.  If a predator eats you – they will get very sick, maybe die.  But you die as well, so… Not too worry, poisonous slugs are brightly colored – a universally understood signal to all predators.


There is one venomous snail – the cone snail, of which we have about five species in the Gulf.  They possess a stylet at the tip of their siphon (similar to the worms we have been writing about) which they can use as a dart for prey such as fish.  Many gastropods are carnivores, but some are herbivores, and some are scavengers.

Many shells are found on the beach as fragments. Here you see the fragment of a Florida Fighting Conch.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

Most have separate sexes and exchange gametes in a sack called a spermatophore.  Fertilized eggs are often encased in structures that resemble clusters, or chains, of plastic.  These are deposited on the seafloor and the young are born with their shell ready for life.


This group is not as popular as a food item as other mollusk but there are some.  The Queen Conch is probably of the most famous of the edible snails, and escargot are typically land snails.  I am not aware of any edible slugs… and that is good thing.


Some of the more common snails you will find along our portion of the Gulf of Mexico are:


Crown Conch                   Olive                                  Murex                 Banded Tulip

Whelks                              Cowries                             Bonnets              Cerith

Slippers                              Moon                                Oyster Drills       Bubble


The most encountered slug is the sea hare.

A common sea slug found along panhandle beaches – the sea hare.

I hope you get a chance to do some shelling – I hope you find some complete ones.  It is addictive!

Embrace the Gulf 2020 – The Fish

Embrace the Gulf 2020 – The Fish

If you ask a kid who is standing on the beach looking at the open Gulf of Mexico “what kinds of creatures do you think live out there?”  More often than not – they would say “FISH”.

And they would not be wrong.


According the Dr. Dickson Hoese and Dr. Richard Moore, in their book Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico, there are 497 species of fishes in the Gulf.  However, they focused their book on the fish of the northwestern Gulf over the continental shelf.  So, this would not include many of the tropical species of the coral reef regions to the south and none of the mysterious deep-sea species in the deepest part of the Gulf.  Add to this, the book was published in 1977, so there have probably been more species discovered.

Schools of fish swim by the turtle reef off of Grayton Beach, Florida. Photo credit: University of Florida / Bernard Brzezinski

Fish are one of the more diverse groups of vertebrates on the planet.  They can inhabit freshwater, brackish, and seawater habitats.  Because all rivers lead to the sea, and all seas are connected, you would think fish species could travel anywhere around the planet.  However, there are physical and biological barriers that isolate groups to certain parts of the ocean.  In the Gulf, we have two such groups.  The Carolina Group are species found in the northern Gulf and the Atlantic coast of the United States.  The Western Atlantic Group are found in the southern Gulf, Caribbean, and south to Brazil.  The primary factors dictating the distribution of these fish, and those within the groups, are salinity, temperature, and the bottom type.


Off the Texas coast there is less rain, thus a higher salinity; it has been reported as high 70 parts per thousand (mean seawater is 35 ppt).  The shelf off Louisiana is bathed with freshwater from two major rivers and salinities can be as low as 10 ppt.  The Florida shelf is more limestone than sand and mud.  This, along with warm temperatures, allow corals and sponges to grow and the fish assemblages change accordingly.


Some species of fish are stenohaline – meaning they require a specific salinity for survival, such as seahorses and angelfish.  Euryhaline fish are those who have a high tolerance for wide swings in salinity, such as mullet and croaker.

Courtesy of Florida Sea Grant. In total, it takes about 3 – 5 years for reefs to reach a level of maximum production for both fish and invertebrate species.


Forty-three of the 497 species are cartilaginous fish, lacking true bone.  Twenty-five are sharks, the other 18 are rays.  Sharks differ from rays in that their gill slits are on the side of their heads and the pectoral fins begins behind these slits.  Rays on the other hand have their gill slits on the bottom (ventral) side of their body and the pectoral begins before them.  Not all rays have stinging barbs.  The skates lack them but do have “thorns” on their backs.  The giant manta also lacks barbs.


Sharks are one of the more feared animals on the planet.  13 the 25 species belong to the requiem shark family, which includes bull, tiger, and lemon sharks.  There are five types of hammerheads, dogfish, and the largest fish of all… the whale shark; reaching over 40 feet.  The most feared of sharks is the great white.  Though not believed to be a resident, there are reports of this fish in the Gulf.  They tend to stay offshore in the cooler waters, but there are inshore reports.

The impressive jaws of the Great White.
Photo: UF IFAS

There is great variety in the 472 species of bony fishes found in the Gulf.  Sturgeons are one of the more ancient groups.  These fish migrate from freshwater, to the Gulf, and back and are endangered species in parts of its range.  Gars are a close cousin and another ancient “dinosaur” fish.  Eels are found here and resemble snakes.  As a matter of fact, some have reported sea snakes in the Gulf only to learn later they caught an eel.  Eels differ from snakes in having fins and gills.  Herring and sardines are one of the more commercially sought-after fish species.  Their bodies are processed to make fish meal, pet food, and used in some cosmetics.  There are flying fish in the Gulf, though they do not actually fly… they glide – but can do so for over 100 yards.  Grouper are one of the more diverse families in the Gulf and are a popular food fish across the region.  There untold numbers of tropical reef fish.  Surgeons, triggerfish, angelfish, tangs, and other colorful fish are amazing to see.  Stargazers are bottom dwelling fish that can produce a mild electric shock if disturbed.  Large billfish, such as marlins and sailfins, are very popular sport fish and common in the Gulf.  Puffers are fish that can inflate when threatened and there are several different kinds.  And one of the strangest of all are the ocean sunfish – the Mola.  Molas are large-disk shaped fish with reduced fins.  They are not great swimmers are often seen floating on their sides waiting for potential prey, such as jellyfish.

We could go on and on about the amazing fish of the Gulf.  There are many who know them by fishing for them.  Others are “fish watchers” exploring the great variety by snorkeling or diving.  We encourage to take some time and visit a local aquarium where you can see, and learn more about, the Fish of the Gulf.




Hoese, H.D., R.H. Moore. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters.  Texas A&M University Press.  College Station Texas.  Pp. 327.

It’s Hot Out There… What Can We Do?  Have You Considered SCUBA?

It’s Hot Out There… What Can We Do? Have You Considered SCUBA?

We like to post articles about fun and adventurous activities people can do outdoors in the Florida panhandle… but it is very hot out there this time of year.  What sort of outdoor adventure can you have when the temperatures are running in the 90s and the humidity in the 80% range?




Many of us have our favorite swimming holes – local rivers, springs, estuaries, or the Gulf itself, but what about SCUBA?  I recently talked to a local dive charter and they said the current weather pattern is not a problem for them.  The seas are relatively calm – easy to get offshore, you are underwater – so not so hot, and afternoon rains washes the gear off.  Sounds like a good adventure on a hot summer day.

Diving near large coral.
Photo: Indiana University

But SCUBA is not for everyone.  My wife tried and did not care for it.  It certainly makes some folks nervous.  Underwater seems confining to many.  There is a lot of equipment you have to wear, and that can be bothersome.  There are creatures out there, some of them rather large.  And then there is the risk, many see SCUBA as a dangerous activity – and it can be.  This is why they require a course for certification… to address all of these issues.


During the course they will put you in a swimming pool with the gear and see how comfortable you are.  Honestly, I remember the first time I tried the tank.  My brain was telling me “DO NOT INHALE… YOU ARE NOT A FISH”.  But eventually I did, and MAN was that cool.  As you become more comfortable you can swim some.  All of this is done at the shallow end so if it is not working for you – you are fine.  The equipment really is not that cumbersome while in the water.  Swimming slow laps, getting use the breathing on the equipment, clearing your mask if water gets in, they teach you everything you need to know to be relaxed while underwater.

Student and instructor practice SCUBA skills in a swimming pool.
Photo: University of Central Florida.

There are skills you will need to learn while in the pool, and then the there is the classroom sessions.  Much of it deals with the danger issue of diving – what could go wrong.  As Jacques Cousteau once said, it is not going down that is the problem, it is coming back.  We are all aware of the pressure changes that occur as you descend into the ocean.  There is air pressure on your body at sea level – about 15 p.s.i.  We do not notice this because our body compensates for it.  However, as you descend into the water the pressure increases 15 p.s.i. every 33 feet you descend.  You will feel this and are taught how to compensate for it.  Once on the bottom, you will find all sorts of structures, fish, sometimes even sea turtles.  You swim around trying to take it all in, but the entire you are down the pressure is pushing gases into your body.  When it is time to return, you must do this the correct way – “gas off” as they say.  Again, local instructors will explain all of this in class and you will have a chance to practice in the pool.


Then there is the open water dive.

You get a chance to test your skills in the open Gulf.

Again, this makes some a bit nervous.  It is one thing in the safety of a swimming pool.  It is another in the wild blue.  There are jellyfish, fish, bigger fish, waves, can’t see the bottom yet, pirates, who knows what is running through your mind.  But you are with friends.  Everyone is going through the same experience and you have master divers at your side.  It is all good.  You eventually reach the bottom and see a world that is truly amazing.

A diver explores a coral reef.
Photo: NOAA

Again, SCUBA is not for everyone, but it is a fun activity on these hot summer days.  Something to consider trying.  There are many great dive instructors along the Florida panhandle, and one near you.  If SCUBA is too much – consider snorkeling, it can be a rewarding activity as well.


Stay cool.