Ayesha Cantrell
Ayesha Cantrell

Mar 17. 2 mins

Scuba Divers Declare War On Lionfish

Environmental movements normally focus on safeguarding animals, but when the creature itself is the force of destruction, drastic measures have to be taken.

Home Territory

Lionfish in their native environment are not a problem. Normally they would be found in the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean or the Southern and Western Pacific Ocean. In these waters, they have natural predators like sharks, grouper and large eels to keep them in check. In their new homes in the Western Atlantic, Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico their only predator is man and he is no match for the job their natural predators do in their home-waters.

It’s quite likely that man made the problem that he is now trying to solve. The lack of genetic diversity displayed by the interlopers leads scientist to believe that they most likely developed from unwanted aquarium fish released into the ocean. Female lionfish are sexually mature at one year and can release up to 2 million eggs a year for the next 14 years, add to this their ability to thrive in a wide range of conditions and their voracious and indiscriminate appetite and you have the ultimate conqueror.

Lionfish eat 6% of their body weight daily; in 6 weeks one lionfish can eliminate 80% of juvenile fish in its territory yet they’re also tough enough to survive without food for up to 12 weeks.

Lionfish stomachs can expand 30 times, and as long as they can get it into their mouths, they’ll eat it. Local marine life does not recognize the lionfish as a threat, in fact, they gravitate towards them as their venomous spiny fins look like they would offer shelter and protection. Lionfish use this to their advantage and are decimating reefs at an alarming rate. Left unchecked, the lionfish problem is so serious that it could lead to the collapse of the coral reef system. Apart from the environmental gravity, the economic fall out for communities that rely on the ocean for their livelihoods would be huge.

To fight back divers, armed with spears, have been hunting the raiders with great success. Even though lionfish have venomous spines, they are neither aggressive nor shy making them very easy to spear. Their spines make them problematic to handle and divers must wear puncture-proof gloves and carry a containment vessel in which to store their catch safely. Once on shore, their spines can be removed while wearing puncture proof gloves and then the fish can be filleted as normal.

Divers need good buoyancy and some dive experience before learning the skills required to join the fray, but learning how to hunt lionfish is relatively easy. Dive centers in hostile areas will often offer training and organize outings to do battle. In some locations, certifications or permits are required to ensure correct procedures are followed and safe equipment is used.

The Spoils Of War
Reef protection aside, guilt-free sustainable fresh fish is the prize for the intrepid crusader. Lionfish are not boney or poisonous to eat in fact they are a versatile white fish like grouper. The internet abounds with lionfish recipes for everything from ceviche to curry, and you don’t need to go out and catch your own to try it. Restaurants in the affected areas have been quick to add lionfish dishes to their menus, and many culls produce a surplus so it’s worth a call to find out if you can help the cause by filling your plate.

This environmental disaster is still playing out. Where hunting is frequent, populations and reef health are being kept in balance, but this represents a very small area of the ocean. Lionfish live in depths of up to 300ft and temperatures as low as 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Trapping technology is being developed to assist human endeavors, but the battle for supremacy will be close. Unlike the intentional introduction of rabbits to Australia, the establishment of lionfish in a new area was unwittingly careless, but we should’ve learned from those rabbits. Let’s hope the lion’s roar isn’t quite as easily forgotten.


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