by Alex Lichtblau

Lionfish...To Kill or Not to Kill

Recently, I returned to my home reef in Roatan, Honduras, for the inaugural dive trip as the owner/operator of my own business. Part of the itinerary included a lionfish hunting license course from the Roatan Marine Park and a dive dedicated specifically to hunting invasive lionfish for a home-cooked ceviche dinner. I also participated in the annual lionfish derby, during which teams compete to remove as many lionfish from the reef as possible in one day. I felt it was important to share with my guests some of the conservation issues affecting the oceans, as well as to involve them in a solution.

Since this homecoming to the Caribbean, I’ve found myself experiencing an inner conflict whenever I see a lionfish. As an able conservation partner I feel a responsibility to help control the invasive species that is so destructive to the reef I love; on the other hand I feel for the lionfish. The malice I harbored towards the fish in the past is gone and all that is left is grief, knowing such a stunning example of nature is in such a terrible position thanks to the ignorance of humankind. I feel associative guilt for humans in general, but also pride for being part of a (admittedly brutal) solution. My predicament is that of a conservationist, one that many are familiar with; to understand it, you need to understand the story of lionfish and my relationship with them.

The Life History of Lionfish

If you dived anywhere on the eastern coast of the Americas before the 1990's, you would only recognize lionfish from aquariums, fish ID books, or dive travel to the other side of the world. Now, if you dive anywhere from New York down to Brazil, there’s a good chance you’ll see one in the water. That’s because lionfish were transplanted from their native habitat in the Indo-Pacific and introduced to Atlantic waters in the early 90's. One theory is that the original introduction occurred when a number of aquarium-held fish escaped to the ocean during Hurricane Andrew. Upon release into new habitat the lionfish numbers exploded, taking advantage of naive prey and predators. Without any natural biological control on the population, lionfish wreaked havoc on many of the ecosystems they now dominate, leaving some almost completely void of other fish species.

The only current solution is human control in the form of hunting, and many places in the southeastern coastal United States, the Gulf and the Caribbean have implemented hunting programs to help manage lionfish populations. Although these programs are a step in the right direction, their effectiveness is arguable and likely they serve more of an educational purpose than signficant invasive species management (Karl Stanley of Stanley Submarines, one of the deepest publicly available deep sea submersibles, sees lionfish at 800 feet, and the recreational divers hunting them typically don't go deeper than 130 feet).

 A large common lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific cruises the reef wall. Humans have transformed one of the most beautiful fish in the Pacific Ocean to one of the Atlantic's worst epidemics.

A large common lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific cruises the reef wall. Humans have transformed one of the most beautiful fish in the Pacific Ocean to one of the Atlantic's worst epidemics.

 Fresh homemade lionfish ceviche...caught, prepared and consumed by me! Keep an eye out for  my signature killer lionfish ceviche recipe!

Fresh homemade lionfish ceviche...caught, prepared and consumed by me! Keep an eye out for my signature killer lionfish ceviche recipe!

Lionfish Control

When I first moved to Roatan, Honduras, in 2014 and saw a lionfish for the first time, I was both astounded by it’s beauty and intrigued by the possibility of participating in its control. I got licensed by the Roatan Marine Park to spear lionfish (the only fish you can legally spear in the Bay Islands), and began hunting them. After being stung a number of times during hunts (I do not recommend it), I found a deeper respect for the fish and I considered them my enemy on the battlefield of conservation. During a hunt, I would feel pride for doing my part, malice towards the fish that was destroying my home-reef, and a rush of adrenaline inherent to any hunt. I also relished being able to provide myself with food, and delicious food at that.

In Their Element

Fast forward two years; I travelled to the Indo-Pacific in search of new experience in the dive industry and found myself guiding and teaching divers in a number of gorgeous locations. I began to see many of the 12 species of lionfish in their element, native to the waters around Indonesia. At first I found myself reaching for my spear when I would see one. I was able to quickly drop that habit and learned to appreciate lionfish as natural part of the environment, in all their vivid splendor. It was at that point that I developed feelings for a fish I had been taught to hate. I began to see them in a different light, and was able to truly appreciate them for the beautiful creatures they are. I spent the next six months diving around Indonesia, falling in love with the environment and its inhabitants, including the lionfish.

The Human Effect

Now, I contemplate the strange role we as humans play in the world. In trying to solve many of the problems we have created, we are very rarely successful, if restoration and preservation of natural habitat is the measure of success. There are countless examples in the field of wildlife biology of invasive species thriving in new habitats and suffering drastic control measures (i.e. the goats of the Galapagos). In the case of the lionfish, we as recreational divers are able to patrol very small sects of the reef and control the population there, but we leave the vast majority of the reef to fend for itself. 

So what can we do better? What can we do to meddle less in the natural cycles of the planet and minimize our impact? I believe our best option is to open our minds, and to learn as much as we can. With education and awareness we can avoid creating future problems, and focus our energy on solving already existing problems. In the case of the lionfish it is already an issue that must be dealt with; having travelled to learn about the lionfish as a resident rather than a plague makes me think about the issue differently.

In the end, the moral is that the lionfish never asked to be transplanted, and that by no fault or ill-intention of its own, it has become very successful, and subsequently destructive. We need to remember that all of our problems are of our own design and implementation, but that we also have the opportunity and ability to develop solutions for those problems. We need to remember that our daily local decisions have a global impact, and that the whole of the Earth is one system.

 After a lionfish hunt in the Roatan Marine Park, I prepare to clean the fish for  lunch ! It's important to be careful when cleaning them, as the sting remains functional hours after the fish is dead.

After a lionfish hunt in the Roatan Marine Park, I prepare to clean the fish for lunch! It's important to be careful when cleaning them, as the sting remains functional hours after the fish is dead.

 A shortfin lionfish flaunts its beautiful fins on a reef in Indonesia. There are 12 extant species of lionfish, 2 of which have been introduced to the Atlantic.

A shortfin lionfish flaunts its beautiful fins on a reef in Indonesia. There are 12 extant species of lionfish, 2 of which have been introduced to the Atlantic.

by Alex Lichtblau

I first dived in the Galapagos in 2011. It inspired in me an unmatched passion...the ocean. Since then I've travelled the world, diving, exploring and building my own dive travel and dive instruction business, Inside Under Dive & Travel. To learn more about me and my passion, see my bio. Also, learn more about dive certifications and courses, or going on a dive trip with me.

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