Hunting the Reef: Invasion of a New Alien Predator

And I don’t mean aliens from outer space!

Fishing Coral Reefs is a topic that I will go into another time, but in the Caribbean there has developed an appropriate time to hunt the reef.  An invasive alien species, native to Indonesia and surrounding areas, has been introduced to the East Coast of the United States, and then ventured into the Caribbean.  This invasive fish is known as a Lionfish.

Lionfish look like aliens from outer space, but are aliens from Indonesia.

When they are part of a balanced ecosystem, Lionfish are not any more predatory than they should be.  As in, they eat and are eaten.  But in the Caribbean, where they just showed up unannounced, they are eating and eating and eating and reproducing without check.  Lionfish are especially hardy. They are found at depths of 1 foot, to over 1000 feet, and are lone hunters who hide well and intimidate their prey. Once they arrived, they started reproducing at alarming rates, and efforts to curb their expansion were unsuccessful.

People struggled to find an answer, but eventually some ideas emerged.   What’s any species in nature’s greatest predator? Man. Except now we can do some good. Thus far, attempts at mass fishing have proven unsuccessful, so it has fallen upon the individuals in diving communities to take charge and try to reclaim the reef.

Most islands in the Caribbean are starting to allow some limited spearing on the reef. For instance, on Utila, Honduras, Divemasters are allowed to use a Hawaiian Sling (a 3 pronged elastic spring spear) to kill Lionfish. I was even lucky enough to participate in the first annual Island wide Lionfish Derby of Utila, where 13 diveshops had teams of 4 divers out spearing as many Lionfish as they could.  Awards were given for the smallest, biggest, and most fish caught, and the following day a Lionfish cookout was staged so that people could see just how tasty this fish was, once prepared properly.

What a good looking team, and with the skills to get those baby Lionfish!

Lionfish have venomous spines on their dorsal, anal, and pelvic fins.  They aren’t fatal to humans, but they can cause some damage if touched.  Once these spines are removed (by someone with gloves), the fish is perfectly safe to eat, and is pretty tasty.  And really it is pretty fun to go out and look for these sneaky guys, who hide well in cracks and under coral.  There is a satisfaction of leaving a dead Lionfish behind and seeing a Moray Eel, or a Grouper sneak in to start developing a taste for these fish, perhaps the start of a newly balanced ecosystem.

Brian shows those Lionfish who's boss on this reef.

So although people are responsible for introducing this alien species to this part of the world, people are becoming part of the solution, which is kind of cool to participate in.  I recommend doing some research on the Lionfish population of your next Caribbean or Gulf diving destination.  Buen Provecho.

Lionfish Hunting with a Hawaiian Sling. Roar.

Photo credits to Samantha and Mario. Thank you!

3 thoughts on “Hunting the Reef: Invasion of a New Alien Predator

  1. I still wonder if a once a year derby is enough. I left right before that derby and I am sure 100s of lionfish were killed. It’s a step in the right direction. I’m glad all of the dive shops were willing to do that. I think it would be a good idea if all DMs went out with a pole spear every time they lead a dive. Here I know they are not doing much about them. I’m not sure what the solution to them is really.

    1. Hey Benj. They actually did a second one in October (I believe). I hear they want to do them quarterly. Anyway, different areas are taking different approaches. Jules Page in Xcalak, Mexico is monitoring three areas. One with no hunting allowed, one with occasional hunting, and with one lots of hunting. Most islands are at least monitoring their Lionfish Populations, and some are actively encouraging their ecosystems to include Lionfish (In the gulf of mexico they’re training the sharks to eat them, Utila was Groupers and Eels as there is a devastatingly low level of sharks in the neighborhood). I guess what I would say to you is, if your shop isn’t doing it, find out the legals of Lionfish Spearing in the USVI and encourage your shop to join in. People like ecotourism, and this is another form of it for tourists to witness, and learn, and tell others about this Alien Invasion. and maybe you’ll get a spear in your hands again!

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