Fighting the Caribbean's lionfish invasion

Fighting the Caribbean's lionfish invasion

At first it seemed like just another reef dive as I finned past spherical brain corals six feet in diameter, above great drifts of staghorn coral resembling amber antlers, and in between purple barrel sponges obscured by clouds of red squirrelfish. In the Soufrière Marine Management Area off the south-west coast of St Lucia, it is forbidden to collect the coral or even touch it; knock against it with a fin or a trailing regulator hose and you will be chastised by the divemaster. Fishing, and especially spearfishing, is banned, hence the reole wrasse, parrotfish and snapper that were gawping at me in the indigo silence.

Then suddenly, crump! Something metallic struck the reef and I spun around to see Ken, the most gentle of divemasters from Scuba Steve’s Diving, retrieving a steel spear with a fish on the end of it, its long feathery fins trailing like broken limbs. He shook the elegant, zebra-striped creature off his pole spear and fired again to make sure the fish was dead. Then, spotting a moray eel, he pushed the corpse towards its razor-toothed jaws.
Brutal and shocking though this was in the context of a marine reserve, it was an act of conservation rather than aggression. For the fish in question was Pterois volitans, the red lionfish, which is destroying the ecosystem of the Caribbean. Native to the Pacific and Indian oceans, these bewitchingly beautiful fish are highly venomous and have few predators, hence their rapid proliferation.

Researchers have found up to 50 species of juvenile fish in their stomachs, among them parrotfish, which graze on toxic algae that poisons the reef, keeping the coral healthy. It is estimated that lionfish can consume up to 80 per cent of an area’s small reef fish in the space of just five weeks.

Until the 90s, there had been no sightings of lionfish in the Caribbean or western Atlantic, but some reefs off Florida and South Carolina now harbour 1,000 per acre. Lionfish rodeos, in which spearfishers hunt down the species, frequently harvest 1,400 in a day. Numbers have doubled annually since 2010, and the invasion has spread from the United States throughout all the Caribbean islands to Venezuela, then westward through the Gulf of Mexico.

Nobody knows for sure how the lionfish got here. Some blame it on an incident in 1992, when Hurricane Andrew smashed a seafront aquarium in Florida, releasing lionfish into the wild. It’s more likely the first specimens came in the ballast tanks of ships from distant oceans or were discarded by amateur aquarists who had simply grown bored with them.
Seeing them on Soufrière reef, it is hard to see how. Confident of their place in the food chain, they never dart or hide but float gracefully above the coral with their venomous spines extended like a mane and twirl slowly like ballerinas, as if to say: “Look at me.” It has clearly never occurred to them that anyone might take a potshot – pot being the operative word, since a campaign has been launched in St Lucia by the Department of Fisheries, dive operators and others to encourage fishermen to catch lionfish and sell them to local restaurants.

That is why I found myself at the Rainforest Hideaway in Marigot Bay, where lionfish is on the menu. With Sam Verity, a marine biologist and the son of the owners, John and Judith Verity, I set out on a small boat from the restaurant’s dock to help catch our evening meal. Also on board was Peter Butcher, chief ranger of the Soufrière Marine Management Area, in full scuba gear and carrying a pole spear. Far from disapproving of the slaughter of lionfish, he is among those with a licence to kill them. Rangers, fisheries officers, dive operators and a small number of commercial fishermen are allowed to hunt the deadly beauties.

The takeover

“There are a couple of rocks out there where we’ll often see 10 or 12,” said Sam, anchoring the boat near one of the outcrops. For an hour I snorkelled above Peter as he explored every nook and cranny in pursuit of the exotic predators, spearing only five and placing them carefully in a sealed bucket.

Back on shore, the reason for the modest catch became clear. “There were some spearfishermen out there before us,” said Sam, “And they caught 40lb of lionfish and sold them to the restaurant just before we got back. Those guys have developed a niche market and would otherwise be unemployed, because all the other fish are disappearing; the lionfish are taking over. One local fisherman, Jonas, hasn’t come back with any fish in the past three nights.”

Add to this the effects on dive tourism, which depends on abundant reef life to lure tourists, and the economic impact could be catastrophic.

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