KEY WEST (CBSMiami/AP) — South Florida fisherman removed more than 1,500 invasive lionfish from the waters off the Florida Keys during three lionfish derbies in 2011.

Officials with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary staged events in conjunction with the Reef Environmental Education Foundation. The last of the year was Saturday.

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Officials say this year’s count of 1,518 surpassed the 2010 harvest of 664 lionfish.

The lionfish has no natural reef predators except man. When divers go after the lionfish, they must wear puncture-resistant gloves to protect them from the lionfish’s venomous spines. The mane-like assemblage of spines that give the fish its lion-like appearance are tipped in poison that can cause severe pain, swelling, nausea, headaches and convulsions. However, the fish can be safely handled once the spines have been removed and many people fillet lionfish and cook them up just like any other fish.

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Derby participants observed proper filleting demonstrations and enjoyed tastings of lionfish caught during events. An “Eat Lionfish” campaign is in progress to develop a commercial market for the species. They are said to be quite delicious. There’s even a Lionfish Cookbook which has recipes for the mild flavored fish plus tips on how to handle them without getting hurt.

Lionfish are native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, but have formed growing populations off the southeastern U.S., Bahamas and the Caribbean. They’re wreaking ecological chaos because they eat important indigenous fish such as grouper and snapper.

No one knows how the lionfish got here. There are a number of theories ranging to an aquarium that exploded during a hurricane to a luxurious aquatic themed hotel that accidentally leaked lionfish eggs into the Caribbean. With no enemies and abundant prey, as well as rapid reproductive abilities, lionfish have spread throughout the region.

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